Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne (1992)


Guy Gavriel Kay… a guy who helped Christopher Tolkien prepare Silmarillon for publication, and then started his own career as fantasy writer. He has his distinct style, he has his fans. I’m one of them, Ola isn’t. Just compare these two quotes from our reviews of Tigana:

A successful lawyer, a philosophy student who helped Christopher Tolkien in The Silmarillion edits, a reasonably well-known author of award-winning fantasy novels, Kay is a veritable jack of all trades. He prefers to set his novels in historical periods, but in imaginary settings, which allows him to create interesting parallels without the burden of fact-checking


Guy Gavriel Kay got his genre credentials early, when as a 20-year-old student he was chosen to help Christopher Tolkien edit Silmarillion. From my point of view – and I love Silmarillion – it’s like a rookie demi-god was asked to edit Bible. How to start your own religion after that? Kay paid homage to his tolkienian roots with excellent Fionavar Tapestry (1984-1986) and moved on to create his own blend of semi-historical fantasy epics. Starting with Tigana (1990). And since I started with religious vocabulary, let me say that I consider this blog’s May 3 review of Tigana a blasphemy

Well, it’s easy to identify who wrote which of these 😉

Song of Arbonne follows Tigana. Kay did not create one universe for his novels to take place in, but rather takes different places and epochs from our history and gives them his special treatment. Tigana was renaissance Italy, Arbonne is Provence, and, I’m told, there will be al-Andalus, Byzantium, and more. The result is a series of quasi-historical stories that might, in that way, remind one of George R.R. Martin, only Kay takes a decidedly different approach. Instead of giving his fantasies the brutality and perfidy of the real Middle Ages, he is inspired by the essence of his chosen epoch as related to us by its art and legends. It is, if you will, its ideal type of sorts.  It gives us Arbonne of troubadours, of peaceful religion centred around a female deity, a country ruled by a truly idealistic queen. Sure, there are crusaders aiming to destroy this oasis, but the general mood is definitely not grim and dark.

Arbonne is a joyful place that deserves to survive, that made me its partisan, and I don’t see that as a fault – firstly, it was definitely done on purpose, and aptly. Secondly, its a song, and not a history, and as such should be judged. Some characters are more self-aware than others and we actually see the beginning of reflection on this very topic. Whose songs will shape the view future will have of our struggles? I like to be reminded that people from the past were actually intelligent enough to speculate about similar things we do, if using different language and with different reference points.

It is, at the same time, more than the recipe that gave us Tigana applied to Provence. There is an interesting text by Nathalie Labrousse-Marchau (available on Bright Weavings, Kay’s authorised website) that shows the book in the context of author’s evolution. It is a fact that we have less magic here, more political realism, more cynicism than I’d expect from early Kay. It only makes it better, though! We have a self aware ballad, still beautiful but more believable. Often self-deprecating, and that is something I simply adore.

I would not call it naive, only consciously one-sided. We get a narrative of the side that just happens to be easy to identify ourselves with. A Machiavellian sort of idealism, where all sides play dirty, but at least there is a decent prince.


Hear me out! Do we have to only read books where authors manage to make all protagonists look equally despicable? I like to have someone to like and root for. I’ve got a Masters in sociology, I know that the foot soldiers of the evil empire are often victims of their circumstances, I know that peasants in the good kingdom live in terrible conditions and so on. The Whig way of seeing history has been debunked multiple times already, so shut up and let me observe nice people prevailing against the crusade…

Because the inspiration of Kay is not only the Provence of song and jousts, but also its sad end at the hands of Pope-ordained murderers. The infamous words of Arnaud Amalric, papal legate during the genocidal Albigensian Crusade that inspired Kay, are:

Kill them all; let God sort them out

And were said while condemning the entire population of a conquered city to death. One of the ugliest human beings in history, and his version here is devised to stimulate similar feelings in the readers.

This is not the crude greyness of so many modern novels, but not an escape into simple Good vs Evil. As Labrousse-Marcha wrote

In this book, the men of Gorhaut and the women of Arbonne only differ in their goals, and not in the means employed to achieve them. With Guy Gavriel Kay, we will not find the dichotomy of “good” and “evil” that is so frequently employed in typical fantasy. The shadows are inextricably linked to the light and the light to the shadows.

A part of me not only wants to read such stories, but also finds hope in them.

When the wind that comes from Arbonne

Sweeps north across the mountains,

Then my heart is full again, even in far Gorhaut,

Because I know that spring has come to Tavernel and Lussan,

To the olive vineyards of Miraval,

And nightingales are singing in the south.

I don’t have to mention that Kay’s language is, as always, exquisite, world rich and interesting, characters conflicted and complicated. I am happy to strongly recommend this book!

Admittedly, the ending is, and it was the same in all of his novels I’ve read, a bit rushed, perhaps (minor spoiler) also a bit too happy. Well, again, it is a Song for Arbonne 🙂

Score: 8/10

42 thoughts on “Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne (1992)

  1. Huh, your review shows me a man who is desperate to believe – and almost succeeds 😉

    I am intrigued despite my bad experiences with Tigana, so tell me, please: will I be somewhat placated or rather further infuriated by A Song for Arbonne? 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      I feel like this review tells as much about me as it does about the book 😉

      I’m not sure I’d recommend Arbonne to you, just as with our friend one post down it’s probably better if you started again with something newer 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really love his debut trilogy, but dropped out of Tigana after about 100 pages – I thought it was sterile and boring. I was surprised and disappointed, as I had such high hopes for that book. I should start another book of him soon, I’m not giving up on Kay, I have a hunch it was just something specific to Tigana.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good to know not all is lost as I share your sentiments on Tigana! I was really disappointed by that book and “sterile” is the perfect summary of the feeling I had while reading…

      Liked by 2 people

    2. piotrek

      I don’t know… there is an evolution, but if you couldn’t even finish Tigana… perhaps start with one of his latest? He might be getting into the direction you’d like, but at Arbonne he’s probably not there yet 🙂


      1. The debut trilogy is also quite generic in a way, but it felt it to be powerful in how it dealt with basic human emotions. Also the language was much more powerful. It had a mythic feel which I liked, Tigana seemed more elaborate and verbose.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Haven’t read a thing by Kay. Both my brother and cousin have though and what they remember most are the sex scenes. So when that is the most memorable part of a book, I’m going to pass.

    However, I do have a thing against fantasy authors using history for their own ends and writing “in history”. Alt-hist ranks right up there with “romance” in my books 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      Well, that’s not what I remember most 😉

      And the alt history here is not a typical alt history, it’s just fantasy inspired by history the way Song of Ice and Fire is, so… perhaps you should read some ;)? Perhaps Fionavar Tapestry, that is the most classic fantasy among Kay’s works…

      Liked by 1 person

        1. It’s totally different from GoT. It’s more like D&D the 80ies cartoon series meets Amber 1-5 meets LOTR meets The Golden Bough. Have your relatives read Fionavar? It’s worth to double check imo, as it’s such classic fantasy.

          Liked by 2 people

              1. Dang it, I am NOT communicating well this morning.

                My “kefahuchi” was supposed to be an ironic statement underscoring your attempted recommendation, ie, every review of yours I now take with TWO grains of salt instead of just the usual one 😉

                Sadly, when I explain it, it isn’t ironic or funny anymore. Sigh, the trials of being a blogger commenting on someone else’s review no less!

                Pio, sorry have rained so much here. Well, not really, but we can both pretend I’m sorry and that should work, right?

                Liked by 2 people

                1. I am the one not communicating well: I perfectly understood your comment, and what I wanted to say is that taking my recommendations with 2 grains of salt based on me recommending Light is a fallacy as that one is a totally different ballgame!

                  Liked by 2 people

  4. My “history” with GG Kay is a mixed one: I read Tigana a long time ago, and memory is a little foggy, but I seem to have pleasant recollections of it, although it did seem a little slow. I also enjoyed The Lions of Al-Rassan, although there were some narrative choices that annoyed me quite a bit, while my attempt to read Fionavar ended quite soon because I could not connect with either story or characters (and that’s putting it mildly…). So I guess my point of view is nearer to Ola’s… 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. piotrek

      Well, while between Tigana and Arbonne I see a slow evolution, and a change in tonne, Fionavar is completely different. I see it as a direct tribute to Tolkien, Kay’s master – and the creator of Silmarillon, editing that was Kay’s first major fantasy job. Tigana, Arbonne – and Lions – these are novels where he was finding his personal voice, so maybe you just like the real, matured GGK 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Yeah! 😀
      Though to be fair, beside the writing style and narrative choices I also had a feminist grudge with Tigana 😉 I sincerely hope Kay didn’t make any similar choices in his other books, as I’m willing to give him a second chance 🙂 Second chance worked with McGuire, thanks to you, Maddalena, so there’s still hope for Kay in my book 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I can see there’s a lot of controversy and contradictory opinions about Kay, but that is definitely an encouragement to me to finally try him! Certainly on Twitter he makes a lot of sense to me, and it helps that I tend to share many of his concerns, political, social and environmental!

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Some of what you mention about GGK’s areas of interest reminded me of Brian Aldiss’s Malacian Tapestry–set in what appears to be somewhere along the Adriatic coast in the Renaissance period, except that the actors are all lizard-like beings. (Malacia seems to be a compound of mal- and malachite green and and Venetia and Dalmatia, I’m guessing.) I must revisit it, I kept my copy from decades ago just for such a reread!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I haven’t read any Guy Gavriel kay yet either, but I agree with Calmgrove’s comment above – if he can produce such mixed feelings then that just makes me more interested in reading him. I do have a copy of Tigana somewhere actually … and I’ve definitely seen his name on the library shelves. I’m bumping him up the tbr list! 🙂
    (Also, great review!)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Bookish High Fives of 2019 | Re-enchantment Of The World

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