Every few years I return to Kay’s fine historical fantasies, and wonder why I waited so long. They are rich in fascinating events, memorable characters, unpredictable plots, and beautifully realized variations on our own history. The fantasy element in this and many of his books is minor, here mainly a girl who converses with the spirit of her dead grandfather. The world of the book is connected to other books by Kay, and is his version of 16th century Europe, with the town of Seressa representing Venice, a city of merchants always angling for profit by any means, while much of the story takes place in what would in our world be the coast of Turkey and the disputed territories inland to the east, contested by the Jaddite (Christian) empire and the Osmanli (Ottoman) empire. We know it’s not our world, not only from the differences in geography and place names, but this planet has two moons, for instance, but in most ways it’s recognizably Earthlike and human.
There are five main characters, and many other important supporting characters. Each of the main threads is connected to the others in interesting ways, and one of my favorite things about Kay’s work is that the story of each character does not seem driven by the plot, it feels as though the characters are making their own decisions and acting accordingly, often doing things not even the author expected. This is fine writing!
We have a teenage girl, Danica Gradek, trying to prove herself as a warrior in a city of coastal pirates where only men are warriors. She is an expert with bow and arrows, and proves her courage and skill in a solo event that gains her acceptance, but soon she’s swept into another kind of story where she becomes a bodyguard and then an outlaw raider.
Young artist Pero Villani of Seressa is barely making ends meet when he is chosen by the council of Seressa to make a long journey to the capital of the Osmanli empire, where he will paint a portrait of that empire’s fearsome ruler. His journey is full of peril, and when he arrives at his destination, he finds his troubles are only beginning.
Leonora Valeri has been banished to a religious prison of sorts by her father, but is rescued by the council of Seressa, who wants her to act the part of a doctor’s wife and spy. She agrees, but when her “husband” dies on the journey to her assignment, everything changes, and she finds herself somehow in a position of great power in the city-state of Dubrova, Seressa’s main competition.
We also follow the life of Damaz, a teenage boy trying to become one of the elite fighters of the Osmanli empire that will soon be marching toward the Jaddite capital hoping to capture territory and cities. He will discover someone must die before that can happen, and receive help that he doesn’t quite understand.
On the way to Dobrova, Leonora, Danica, and Pero become friends, and make an ally in Marin Djivo, the owner of the ship they travel in, part of a wealthy merchant family in Dubrova, and the last of the five main characters. Some of them will travel together to Asharias, the capital city of the Osmanlis, and the fortunes of each will change along the way.
This is an excellent book, long, but the kind where you hate for it to end, even though it ends well. Recommended highly.