" Wonderfully dense and maybe even challenging, this book certainly makes you think." Melisande Aquilina's book Review of All the Seas of the World
“We can be changed, sometimes greatly, by people who come only glancingly into our lives and move on, never knowing what they have done to us. We can do this ourselves to others. And never know. Move past an encounter… leaving something significant behind for another.’
Genre: Historical Fiction, Historical Fantasy
Reading this book was an experience, not only emotionally, but also intellectually and perhaps even psychologically. Kay presents the reader with a world reminiscent of our Renaissance, focusing on the most historically relevant countries of the time.
The novel takes place a few years after the fall of Sarantium (recalling our Constantinople), and the turmoil this caused to the people of the Jaddite faith. The Jaddites, reminiscent of Catholics, worship a Sun god and control most of the Western world, the Asharites, whose culture is very close to the Islamic belief system, reside in the East, while the Kindath, evocative of the Jews, exist on sufferance in almost all countries (except for the Kingdom of Esperana, which like our Spain, has expulsed them).
While this novel is marketed as a stand-alone, the worldbuilding is so overwhelmingly detailed that I was glad I had already had a taste of it in the past, since I had already encountered two other such ‘standalone’ novels by Kay, ‘A Brightness long Ago’ and ‘Children of Earth and Sky’ and so I had already been kind of ‘prepped’ for my foray into this complicated world, densely populated not only with interlocking characters but also political and historical facts re-imagined into a totally different context. If your aim is to be completely enveloped into a world full of intrigue, adventures, nuanced emotions, betrayal and gritty decisions, hesitate no more. Kay’s novel is all of that and more.
Against a backdrop of religious war and seafaring corsair culture with Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavours, the two characters at the heart of Kay’s story are Rafel and Nadia. Rafel is a Kindath, whose family was exiled from their homeland, Esperana, when he was a child. He is a corsair, a merchant, a witty philosopher and much more. Nadia, originally from Batiara (a country much like our Italy) enslaved by the Asharites as a child, was trained in the use of weapons and combat. Very unusual for a woman in that culture, but more than convenient in a world where survival is a much prized skill. After escaping her enslavement, she joins Rafel in an endeavour which will change the course of history.
The novel explores the effect of their individual actions and choices that lead to both new and forgotten discoveries. One of the things I loved most about this book was Kay’s use of what I am going to call the ‘ripple effect’. Apart from events narrated by the main characters, or action focusing on important historical personages such as Kings, ambassadors, generals or leaders, Kay often leaves such threads to follow, for a time, a character who has played little, or sometimes no role, in the plot to this point. His aim I think, is to show the reader that everyone is a main character in their own story, and everyone we meet, even if only for a moment, can play a shaping role in our own evolution as individuals. He shows the impact and the effect each and every person has on those around him, and how even the most seemingly inconsequential event can play a part in shaping decisions and actions which may affect millions of lives.
Kay’s talent for crafting genuinely evocative scenes that lend themselves well to the visual imagination is also excellent in that the reader feels really invested in the characters and the worldbuilding. Seressa was a particularly interesting location seemingly modelled on the canal-like structure of Venice and I also particularly enjoyed the details about mercantile systems and the way battles can influence commerce and the economy on a larger scale.
The twinned ideas of home and exile serve as the main motif which runs throughout the story. Time and again we are presented with lost, unmoored characters who are seeking a home. Rafel recalls being forced to flee with his family from Esperana when he was a child, uprooted because of the expulsion of the Kindath from the Jaddaith country. Nadia, kidnapped and sold into slavery, forever changed by her ordeal, cannot help but recall her younger days at her family’s farm. Their anger and sense of betrayal by the world at large, colour their decisions and perspectives. Rafel and Nadia are both deeply wounded souls, cut off from not just their families but their very cultures, making them profoundly flawed, yet also singularly perceptive and capable of understanding human nature. The way these two characters grow and evolve is a pleasure to behold.
Nadia in particular, is a very strong character. In a world where women are dominated by the patriarchy, she not only escapes the mold, but refuses to bow down to oppression. Her character arch is illuminating in more ways than one.
All the Seas of the World is both a passionately personal novel, closely focusing on two major protagonists and a number of minor ones, and also a hugely epic one. It is immersive and complex, set in a time of political turmoil when every action can have far reaching consequences, and yet it is the lives of the imperfect, turbulent human beings, which cannot but involve the reader, which offer the most insight.
Wonderfully dense and maybe even challenging, this book certainly makes you think. Not an easy beach read, but definitely a novel which enriches those it touches.