Woohoo Children of Earth and Sky is almost here
It will be especially interesting to me since a part of it is based on Croatian history. I'm really interested in seeing how he'll capture Senj and Dubrovnik and Dalmatia in general.
Anyways, he has written 12 novels so far (with Children of Earth and Sky being the 13th). I haven't read Ysabel and the Fionavar Tapestry, but his other 9 novels are all at the high echelon of fantasy writing for me. The worst of the 9 is still fantastic.
I thought I might write a guide for those who are trying to get into his books but aren't quite sure as where to begin. Hope this helps.
We could divide his 13 novels in 2 sets. The first is standard fantasy, while the second is what Kay is known for, so, essentially taking history and making it fantasy.
In this first category you have 4 novels. The Summer Tree; The Wandering Fire; The Darkest Road; Ysabel. The first three of those form a Tolkienesque trilogy called The Fionavar Tapestry, and should obviously be read in that order. Ysabel is a stand-alone urban fantasy novel but it is explicitly tied to the aforementioned and you can, but preferably shouldn't read it before the trilogy.
The other 9 are more-or-less standalone novels. They are, in order of publishing: Tigana; A Song for Arbonne; The Lions of Al-Rassan; Sailing to Sarantium; Lord of Emperors; The Last Light of the Sun; Under Heaven; River of Stars; Children of Earth and Sky.
A disclaimer first. Kay really likes subtly referencing his previous work but that doesn't mean those stories take place in the same world, so you can find a reference to Fionavar in Tigana and a reference to Tigana in Lord of Emperors, but, again, not the same setting.
With that out of the way:
Tigana; A Song for Arbonne; The Lions of Al-Rassan; The Last Light of the Sun, Under Heaven; River of Stars; Children of Earth and Sky. These novels are stand-alone, and can be read in any order you will fully understand the story, the characters, and the setting. On the other hand, Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors form a duology called The Sarantine Mosaic, with Lord of Emperors being a direct sequel. Obviously, don't read that one first.
But now it gets complicated.
Tigana (Renaissance Italy) and A Song for Arbonne (the Albigensian Crusade) are the only two truly stand-alone novels, with no explicit ties to any other story. Both take place in their own imaginary world.
Under Heaven and River of Stars take place in the same country called Kitai (think China in the 8th and 12th centuries), but River of Stars takes place 300ish years after the events of Under Heaven. While you don't have to read Under Heaven at all to understand River of Stars, I think it is more enjoyable to read that one first, since there are some clever and plot-relevant details that you'll appreciate that much more if you read Under Heaven first.
The Lions of Al-Rassan; The Sarantine Mosaic (Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors); The Last Light of the Sun; and Children of Earth and Sky all take place in the same setting at different points of time, but this difference is more broad than the one with the Kitai novels. Whereas those two take place in the same country, these five novels take place on the same continent, and the time differences are in centuries. The main tie between them is religion with the god Jad being an important aspect of all of them. The in-universe chronology is slightly different then the publishing one, it being: The Sarantine Mosaic (equivalent to the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century) - The Last Light of the Sun (England in the late 9th century) - The Lions of Al-Rassan (Spain in the early 10th Century) - The Children of Earth and Sky (Venice and the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century). But despite that, I would still recommend reading these in the publishing order, because the main tie between them (Jad) is mostly fleshed out and explored in The Lions of Al-Rassan. The only really important thing is to read The Last Light of the Sun after the Sarantine Mosaic, because there is a bit of a spoiler and a nice callback in The Last Light of the Sun considering The Sarantine Mosaic.
To recap, there are really five reading orders you should follow for maximum enjoyment. You can start with any of the below five and intercut with any novel from any of the other lines, but don't switch places of novels in the same line.
1. The Summer Tree ---> The Wandering Fire ---> The Darkest Road ---> Ysabel
3. A Song for Arbonne
4. The Lions of Al-Rassan ---> Sailing to Sarantium ---> Lord of Emperors ---> The Last Light of the Sun ---> Children of Earth and Sky
An alternative that would work just as fine (but I prefer the above) would be:
Sailing to Sarantium ---> Lord of Emperors ---> The Last Light of the Sun ---> The Lions of Al-Rassan ---> Children of Earth and Sky
5. Under Heaven ---> River of Stars
Here is also my ranking of the above 7 (counting The Sarantine Mosaic as one, and Children of Earth and Sky isn't out yet), from worst to best, if you want to decide where to being using that. But, again, the worst is still amazing.
7. Under Heaven
6. A Song for Arbonne
5. The Last Light of the Sun
4. River of Stars
2. The Sarantine Mosaic
1. The Lions of Al-Rassan
Hope this helped