|4.5 stars out of 5|
From the small coastal town of Senjan, notorious for its pirates, a young woman sets out to find vengeance for her lost family. That same spring, from the wealthy city-state of Seressa, famous for its canals and lagoon, come two very different people: a young artist traveling to the dangerous east to paint the grand khalif at his request—and possibly to do more—and a fiercely intelligent, angry woman, posing as a doctor’s wife, but sent by Seressa as a spy.
The trading ship that carries them is commanded by the accomplished younger son of a merchant family, ambivalent about the life he’s been born to live. And farther east a boy trains to become a soldier in the elite infantry of the khalif—to win glory in the war everyone knows is coming.
As these lives entwine, their fates—and those of many others—will hang in the balance, when the khalif sends out his massive army to take the great fortress that is the gateway to the western world…
I am admittedly and unabashedly a GGK fan girl. Since I read Under Heaven three years ago for my real life book club, I have been gradually chipping away at his works and have adored every single one of them so far. This too was a big, thick book and I read it in two days.
But this one wrapped up so neatly and completely—and I’m a person who loves ambiguous endings or slightly unhappy endings, the non-traditional unhappily ever after. That’s why this book didn’t rate the entire 5 stars for me. There were no threads left hanging, nothing unresolved, nothing that I could daydream about after it was done.
Still, the political machinations were fascinating and I’m thinking that I must read the historical text that Kay mentions in his afterword, namely The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II by Fernand Braudel. I have some ideas of which cultures Kay based his characters on, but I would like to have a bit more background.
Even without an extensive knowledge of the history of the Mediterranean area of that period, I enjoyed the storyline. It was convoluted and told from many different points of view. As always, GGK provided some admirable female characters (and a couple of not so honourable women too, of course) that prevent this novel from being solely about scheming men. He is masterful at creating believable women, apparently believing that women are people. As we are.
I enjoyed it immensely, but would probably not recommend it as a first book to introduce oneself to GGK—for that honour, I would nominate either Under Heaven or River of Stars, both of which are set in an Ancient China-like setting and are absolutely stunning.