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:
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 🙂