This is the sixth book I’ve read by Guy Gavriel Kay and it is once again set in his distinctive parallel world with its single sun and twin moons – white and blue – though the names of the countries and the gods aren’t the same as in his other books. Like the vast majority of his novels, A Song for Arbonne takes place in a context closely mirroring a historical period from our own world: in this case, Southern France in the age of the troubadours.
Arbonne is a dreamy country basking in a Mediterranean climate, where the deeds and loves of the great are remembered in song, and where noble women have a say in politics through the Courts of Love and the rituals of courtly love. But all is not well in the south: beyond the northern mountains, the advisers to the king of Gorhaut are agitating for war, and the Arbonnais nobles are weakened by a desperate rift between the dukes of Talair and Miraval, the result of wounded pride.
Into this web of rivalries and obligations come Lisseut, a jonglar seeking to make her name, and Blaise, an enigmatic mercenary whose life has been defined by a struggle against his distant, manipulative father. In this country there is less magic than in Kay’s Tigana: what remains is little more than religious mysticism. For me, Kay is most successful when he relies least on magic, and focuses on the forces of personalities, decisions and destinies. He is a skilled creator of believable characters, although it’s true that his cast are drawn from a fairly limited range: the thoughtful warrior; the singer / artist; the strong, independent woman; the noble unrequited lover; the man governed by principles rather than social obligations.
Kay is a sumptuous writer. He doesn’t wade into the quagmire of purple prose, but he does allow his books to be subtly informed by the rhythms of his sources. The Lions of Al-Rassan, for example, was a tribute to the medieval chanson de geste, while the writing in this book is more lyrical and romantic, befitting a culture in which courtly love is highly prized, singers have wide renown, and women have the ability to govern on a level with men. From the very first paragraph, you’re borne along on language and phrases which subtly reinforce the feeling of a medieval romance. Yet I use that term with qualifications. Any men reading this shouldn’t be put off by the word ‘romance’, which I do mean in a purely medieval context. There’s plenty of chivalry and male braggadocio, and a well-written battle at the climax.
I should mention that Kay is generally classed as a fantasy author, as a result of our culture’s desire to put everything into a box. This is a shame because his books are rich and moving and have much to offer someone who might be put off by the ‘fantasy’ label. He writes with an epic cinematic sweep and some of the scenes made the hairs rise on the backs of my arms.
Although I don’t think A Song for Arbonne is one of his absolute best, that’s partly because I’ve read enough of his books that I can now anticipate the patterns of the characters’ relationships and some of the plot. But, compared to other authors, Kay is very good even when he’s not at his best. For anyone familiar with his work, I would place this above Tigana but below The Lions of Al-Rassan and Sailing to Sarantium. There are a few minor shortcomings in Arbonne, which I mention only to explain my reservations. There are slight contrivances to the plot, particularly the fate of Aelis’s child which, after a few recognisably red herrings, is revealed only in the final chapter. As befits a troubadour’s tale, the protagonists are mostly of noble birth and most of them are (ultimately) noble of heart as well: this is a window on a very particular section of society. If you like earthy, bawdy, gritty fiction then this isn’t really for you.
But if you can allow yourself to be momentarily transported by a book which luxuriates in songs and crackling fires and fur cloaks in winter, and birdsong above rustling leaves in the spring, and sunlight glinting on a drawn sword; on the honour of single combat, or great battles, or stirring pageantry, then please do give it a go.