Set in the same Renaissance Mediterranean-inspired world as Children of Earth and Sky and A Brightness Long Ago, Guy Gavriel Kay’s All the Seas of the World follows Rafel ben Natan and Nadia bint Dhiyan, merchants and privateers on a mission to assassinate the khalif of Abeneven. On the way, they travel with feared warlords; consort with kings, emperors and popes; and inadvertently start a war of vengeance that some call holy. But because they are always a few steps removed from real power, Rafel and Nadia are never able to correct the injustices they encounter. Kay’s fictional worlds, while beautiful, are defined by this bleak inertia; his characters see their homes fade from the map and their own lives taken for the pettiest of causes. This perspective allows Kay to address serious topics within the framework of a fantasy adventure novel, but he never tips into the sort of grimdark cynicism that would cheapen his insights (and seriously depress some readers).
Nowhere in All the Seas of the World is this more apparent than in its treatment of religion. Kay’s other works set in this world have depicted internecine strife within the Jaddite faith (an analogue of Christianity) and the recurrent wars between the Jaddites and the Osmanlis (similar to the Islamic Ottoman Empire). All the Seas of the World turns to the Kindath, Kay’s fictionalized version of the Jewish people. Society will never accept the Kindath, no matter how successful they become or how much they conform. They achieve their victories through survival, finding ways to navigate a hostile, mistrustful world without endangering their community.
Throughout All the Seas of the World, the Kindath contend with this reality in myriad ways. They try to assimilate, only to learn that true assimilation is impossible. They seek security in success, only to find that such success makes them targets of vitriol and violence. When Kay enters Rafel’s perspective, he makes it painfully clear how every decision Rafel faces is weighted by the potential consequences not just for himself but for his family and the entire Kindath community, given that his and Nadia’s mission is one of great importance to the Jaddite world.
Nadia spends much of the book coping with the trauma of being taken by Osmanli slavers as a child, and Kay depicts her inner landscape with sensitivity and nuance. She nurses a visceral, bigoted hatred of all things Osmanli that thinly masquerades as Jaddite zealotry, but as the flames of her hatred sputter out, she wonders where she belongs in a world that views her as less valuable because of her abduction. In Kay’s world, both women and the Kindath are under extraordinary pressure to conform to ever-shifting ideals that are entirely determined by outsiders.
And yet, All the Seas of the World is a story of resilience winning out, of these two individuals finding a way to vanquish their demons in spite of all the powers arrayed against them. A master of telling small stories in a big world, Kay reveals spots of hope amid the cold cynicism of history.