All the Seas of the World (Book Review)
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Penguin Random House
I received this book as an e-arc from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.
All the Seas of the World is an immersive, complex, and realism-based fantasy with interesting characters and a sprawling plot that serves to show how all decisions, even minor ones, have impacts we can’t predict.
On a dark night along a lonely stretch of coast a small ship sends two people ashore. Their purpose is assassination. They have been hired by two of the most dangerous men alive to alter the balance of power in the world. If they succeed, the consequences will affect the destinies of empires, and lives both great and small.
One of those arriving at that beach is a woman abducted by corsairs as a child and sold into years of servitude. Having escaped, she is trying to chart her own course — and is bent upon revenge. Another is a seafaring merchant who still remembers being exiled as a child with his family from their home, for their faith, a moment that never leaves him. In what follows, through a story both intimate and epic, unforgettable characters are immersed in the fierce and deadly struggles that define their time.
I had no idea going into this novel that it takes place in an already developed world from two other novels, and while I don’t think this was detrimental to my understanding of the story, it did feel like some exposition was lacking. For example, because the blurb I read on NetGalley didn’t say it was set during an approximation of the Renaissance, I wasn’t sure what the time period was supposed to be based on. This wouldn’t have mattered at all, until later on in the novel when guns and cannon show up and I was like … wait … guns? Cannon? What type of guns? Why are there guns? No one used one before …
Likewise, while by the end I really enjoyed the novel and there were many times when I had trouble putting it down, it took a little bit for me to get into it. The reason was that the novel has two particular stylistic choices that take some adjusting to. The first is that the book serves to give up a lot of its backstory in rather long info-dumps, and the second is that it invokes this “two-sentence wrap up of the result of a scene” before actually describing what happened in the scene. I eventually realized both of these were due to the narrative style but I found the latter ruined some of the tension for me.
Don’t get me wrong, the novel is so rich in detail, packed with fascinating and fun characters, and has beautiful prose. I would argue it’s almost a literary fiction because the novel definitely uses a stream-of-conscious style, in that the point of view will shift to another person and pretty much tell their life story before jumping back into the main storyline again. I think it’s just hard to get into it at first because I wasn’t expecting it and I hadn’t read the other books this world was based on so it was adjusting to both the depth of the worldbuilding and the prose.
While there are action scenes in the novel, it’s definitely not a “sword and sorcery” fantasy, but one that uses the backdrop of fantasy to delve into themes of revenge, self-identity, home, and purpose. It's deep and complex and enchanting.
I liked the characters. Nadia is tough, guarded, aloof, and determined, but her tragic backstory shapes a lot of her personality and it’s great to see her grow and learn how to deal with her past. Rafel was likable albeit a bit boring of a person, but not everyone has to have an over-the-top personality, especially when there were other characters with tons of charisma. He was reliable, which is why Nadia liked him too, I suppose!
The story is too complex to give even a cursory overview without spoilers, as it’s less a straightforward plot than showing how small decisions can spawn large consequences. As such, the story feels authentic to real life and you’re never sure what is going to happen. It’s not a thrilling plot, but it’s addictively interesting. It’s both a serious and safe story, as you can tell by the tone that there aren’t going to be graphic descriptions like in a grimdark fantasy yet it still deals with the effects of slavery and assault.
The novel has normalized queer rep, some moments of humour, poignancy, and gorgeous lines of prose. I do highly recommend it, but it’s not a novel you can just turn your brain off to read. Then again, that's one of the many great things about it!