Five years after the fall of Sarantium, the Jaddite world continues to argue over their inability to unite and retake the great city. However, an assassination in a coastal city of the Majriti, far to the west, sets in train a series of momentous events. At their heart is a Kindath trader and a young woman who was once abducted by corsairs. Surviving to adulthood, she has vowed vengeance on those who wronged her.
The arrival of a new Guy Gavriel Kay novel is an event to be celebrated. Every three years or so, a new Kay novel arrives. Established readers will have a sense of what to find: an erudite work of fantasy with beautiful, thoughtful prose. But the story and the historical parallels Kay delights in finding are always a surprise.
All the Seas of the Worlds can easily be read and enjoyed as a stand-alone novel, although it is also the third (and possibly concluding) book in a linked thematic series, continuing from 2016's Children of Earth and Sky and 2019's A Brightness Long Ago (All the Seas of the World is set several years after A Brightness Long Ago and maybe twenty years before Children of Earth and Sky). All three books are also set in a larger world, also the setting for his classic 1995 novel The Lions of Al-Rassan, the Sarantine Mosaic duology (Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors) and his 2004 novel The Last Light of the Sun. Familiarity with Kay's work can enhance enjoyment of this novel, as you'll know who Folci d'Arcosi is and how he became so renowned, but the narrative is completely self-contained as it stands.
The historical analogues between the novel and real history are slighter this time (the 1535 conquest of Tunis may be one influence) and the focus is on two major protagonists. Rafel ben Natan is a Kindath corsair and merchant with a complicated family background. His friend and ally Lenia is a former slave of Asharite corsairs who is filled with anger towards her captors and a need for vengeance. However, as the novel continues, Lenia's experiences give her something more to live for than just the need for blood. Similarly, the political-religious situation with the Holy Patriarch of Rhodias angrily demanding vengeance for the fall of Sarantium slow changes to a more nuanced political situation with a politically canny substitute for that vengeance making itself known. Characterisation is Kay's greatest achievement, panting his characters as flawed but relatable colours and having them overcoming external challenges and their own doubts and insecurities in order to prosper.
All the Seas of the World is both a deeply personal novel, closely focused on two major protagonists and a number of minor ones (some recurring from A Brightness Long Ago, or precurring before Children of Earth and Sky), and also a hugely epic one. It may be the most epic novel Kay has written, spanning all the lands of the Middle Sea. Esperana - former Al-Rassan - makes its most significant showing in a Kay novel since The Lions of Al-Rassan itself, and we spend time with the King of Ferrieres, the rulers of multiple Majriti and Batiaran city-states, the exile ruler of Trakesia and even, briefly, the conqueror of Sarantium himself. Kay shows an adept facility for Game of Thrones-style realpolitik and a solid affinity for battles, but these are not the primary focus of his novels. Instead, he uses epic events to impact on the lives of ordinary people, or uses ordinary people to set in motion unexpected, epic events that reflect back on his characters.
It is not hyperbole to say that Kay has a claim to being one of our greatest living fantasy writers, if not the greatest - an opinion shared by the likes of George R.R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson - and All the Seas of the World (*****) is one of his very strongest books. Characterisation, narrative and prose all work in near-perfect concert to deliver a formidable work of art, with a more prominent depiction of politics and warfare than some of his other works have delivered. The novel will be released on 17 May.