Children of Earth and Sky: An analysis of character and tense

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It is a strange thing, to be a writer. It affects your interactions with the world; overlays every place, every conversation, every observation with an unspoken question: “What is their story?”

It affects you in other, more mundane ways too. For example, consuming literature and related art (television, films) takes on a secondary aspect. As soon as you yourself are concerned with the selection and arrangement of words to tell a story, you can’t help but take notice of how others do it (usually in a far, far better way than you could ever manage). It’s not uncommon to read a book twice — once to experience it, and then again to try to work out how that experience was constructed.

On a recent Italian holiday, I read Guy Gavriel Kay’s most recent novel, Children of Earth and Sky. I’ll save the review for another day (and another site), but suffice to say that like all of his previous books it is a weighty low fantasy book that follows the intersecting experiences of a sizeable cast of characters as they become involved in events larger than themselves. Since that description could easily be applied to my own recently finished 100k first draft, and because while reading I had noticed some interesting aspects of Kay’s writing that I wanted to understand, I dived into a deeper analysis of the novel in an attempt to inform my own (re)writing as I prepare to edit.

Chapters and Characters

The book consists of 26 chapters split into four ‘parts’ of six, six, five and nine chapters respectively. Within each chapter, Kay generally presents a mixture of third-person viewpoints (there are two chapters that only follow a single character; the largest number of different POVs in a single chapter is five) and for the most part the characters within each chapter are geographically close — the action rarely jumps between cities or countries within a single chapter. This contrasts with books like George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, where he focuses on a single character in each chapter; that is also the approach I took when writing my first draft, but I might look to break up the focus by intermingling characters within chapters as I edit.

While the majority of the book is taken up in following the primary POV characters — Pero, Danica, Marin, Damaz and Leonora — I found it interesting that Kay occasionally sprinkles in brief sections that tell the story from the point-of-view of a more minor character, sometimes so minor that they not even given a name. These asides are usually short, around a page or two in length, but they serve to remind the reader that there are other people in the world through which the primary characters move, and provide depth by allowing us to see them through the eyes of others.

There are also a handful of secondary characters — Duke Ricci, Drago, Orso, Savko, Hrant — who, while receiving a slightly larger page count, are mostly relegated to one or perhaps two chapters only. They pop up, play their part in the story, and then are never heard from again. Orso and Savko in particular are interesting; they are located in a city that nobody else in the entire book ever visits, and their concerns are mostly unrelated to the main plot. They feature only in Chapters 1 and 13, which begin Parts 1 and 3 of the novel. This symmetry has to be intentional; a way of resetting the narrative and marking the mid-point of the book. Indeed, the chapters immediately following those two, both at the start and in the middle, feature the same characters in the same order, almost as if they are being reintroduced to the reader after the rising action of the first half of the story.

One final point on character choices; although absent for the first eight chapters of the book, an omniscient narrator appears briefly in Chapter 9, and then reappears in almost every chapter thereafter. Its purpose is usually to discuss the larger effects that ripple out from the actions of the characters, sometimes even looking forward to reveal what lies in the characters’ or the world’s future. More often than not, this narrator closes out a chapter.

For me, the key lessons here lie in Kay’s deployment of minor, unimportant characters to illustrate the larger world beyond the narrow confines of the protagonists’ experiences; the other lives they touch, the people that play a part in shaping their shared destiny. I think it could provide an opportunity to look at a character’s decisions with a more impartial eye, rather than trying to explain everything from a major character’s viewpoint.

Past and Present

The aspect of the book that first led me to consider writing this analysis turned out to be the most surprising revelation when I dug deeper.

I noticed during reading that certain sections were written in present tense, while the vast bulk of the novel uses the far more common past tense. I had assumed, wrongly as it turns out, that Kay was using present tense during the most exciting passages, to convey a sense of urgency and potential surprise — in past tense, the narrator knows what is about to happen (has already happened), but in present tense they live the excitement with the reader — but, when I re-read the book more carefully, I discovered that my initial assumption had been incorrect.

In fact, the present tense sections turned out to be all of those in which Marin was the POV character. Every single one of his segments, throughout the entire novel, is written in present tense, and no other section apart from those uses it. And it is far from the case that all of Marin’s sections are full of action — in fact, the first time we meet him he is getting dressed and going for a stroll, which is hardly the most heart-pounding of action sequences.

I have wondered whether, by placing Marin firmly in the present, Kay is commenting on the other characters’ tendencies to live in the past. Certainly, Leonora, Danica and Damaz are all greatly influenced by events that occurred in their past; Pero less so, although one could make an argument for him also. Marin, on the other hand, is primarily a character looking forward and thinking about his future. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the author is merely using tense to delineate one particular character for other reasons (including entirely arbitrary ones), and unless he chooses to comment here and explain himself, it’s likely we’ll never know.

There were a handful of other observations I made, mostly minor (such as Kay’s use of brackets, a technique I’ve always avoided since it feels like editorialising) but this exercise has definitely been a useful one. While it is often said that the best thing you can do as a writer is to read widely, I often feel that if that reading isn’t accompanied by deliberate thought and consideration of how and why things ended up the way they did, you can fail to get the most out of the experience.

And now, I have 100,000 words to rewrite.

Matthew Pennell

Designer, developer, writer, runner, gamer, devil's advocate, INTP. Senior designer for Booking.com. Founder, Refresh Cambridge.
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