There are two books I read over the summer/autumn that I meant to write about at some length on this blog, but never actually did. With winter very close and the days shortening at an alarming rate, it seems as good time as any to get my thoughts about both of them out in one go.
Children of Earth and Sky – Guy Gavriel Kay (2016)
I should have enjoyed Kay’s latest more than I did, since it once again happens to enter an area of personal historical interest: the eastern Mediterranean in the late fifteenth century. I did enjoy it, for the most part, and the thematic echoes of his earlier Sarantine Mosaic are clear. There, Crispin travelled to Sarantium to create a mosaic commissioned by the Sarantine emperor. Here, Pero travels to then-Sarantium now-Asharias to paint a portrait of the grand khalif of the Osmanli Empire. Seemingly insignificant people put in positions where their decisions have grand historical consequences abound, as is usual for Kay, with a similar sense of crushing weight to history in its uncaring inevitability. That weight is most evident in the Osmanli (Ottoman) attempts to besiege Alternate-Vienna; foiled not by the actions of the brave Senjani soldiers we follow who trek to defend the Jaddite faith, but something as simple and fickle as the weather. The historical content is great, as usual, especially the depictions of a parallel Venetian court as well as in-fighting among the Ottoman sultan’s sons, and unlike Under Heaven or River of Stars, Kay feels free to move aside from “how things really happened” and explore his own scenarios, what-ifs and characters. Of those characters, Danica of Senjan, a female mercenary who wants revenge on the Osmanlis for destroying her family and who is literally haunted by the ghost of her grandfather, is the most compelling.
However, there’s also an aimlessness to the novel that proves its greatest weakness. Characters cross paths only briefly, unwinding into their own narratives some of which feel important, and some of which don’t. Pero, as the thematic centre alongside Danica, just isn’t as interesting as she is, and isn’t as fun to hang around with as his thematic predecessor, Crispin, was. It’s a lot of wandering that sometimes failed to keep my attention and sometimes failed to keep me caring about the people involved.
Children of Earth and Sky is a satisfying, thoughtful read, but one that suffers in relation to the duology it explicitly references and builds on.
Mythago Wood – Robert Holdstock (1984)
Stephen returns to his home after the second world war and the death of his estranged father, a man obsessed with the ancient woodland on their estate. Mythago Wood is rightly considered a classic, and is the most thorough exploration of an idea that seems common among European fantasy authors of the 1940s-1990s: where pockets of the primeval woodland that once covered the continent now hold human consciousness/myth within them. Wandering into an old-growth forest becomes a literal form of time-travel, and legendary creatures and figures still make their home there, unaware of the passing years. You find that motif most obviously in Tolkien’s Old Forest and Mirkwood. Here, it’s more explicit: if you follow the right paths, the small forest becomes the edge of a much larger one, and at its centre is the way to the ice age and humankind’s earliest prehistory. Beyond it lies a place purified from the pain and suffering we have wrought.
Compelling stuff, but getting there is a thorny task. Stephen’s impetus to penetrate to the heart of the wood is his love for Guiwenneth, a woman born out of English myth who serves as the template for Guinevere and others. Their relationship is idealized in a way that I ultimately disliked: I saw no good reason Guiwenneth would be attracted to Stephen beyond that she has to be for the purposes of the story. I am all for characters of vastly different cultures and mindsets coming to understand each other and form strong bonds (see: The Left Hand of Darkness), but that process is very one-sided in Mythago Wood, and the conclusion is that their bond is shared because Guiwenneth came partially from Stephen’s fevered imaginings. That same reasoning worked beautifully in Solaris, not so much here, but it does lead to something beautiful: the long trek through the endless forest that makes up the last portion of the novel.
The same ideas about the woodland in Mythago Wood are now more commonly (and surprisingly) found in urban fantasies today. Neverwhere has secret pathways in London leading to a much larger mythscape within it and spawned a whole set of “magic London” novels by other authors operating on the same principles. The urban side of this setting has been successfully replicated by North American fantasy authors, but I don’t find the same reverence for the forest as a holding-place for human memory. For whatever reason, we didn’t (and don’t) have the same conception of the forest, perhaps because we still have so much of it. While American and Canadian authors have tried to incorporate the notion of the greenwood in their fiction, I’ve never felt they believed it in the way that Holdstock and his contemporaries did.