You'll often find Guy Gavriel Kay referred to as a fantasy author, but that feels reductive somehow. If anything, he creates tantalising other-worlds which allude to times and places in our own history. Here, for example, the inspiration is clear: medieval France at the time of the troubadours. Arbonne is a dreamy country basking in a Mediterranean climate, where the deeds of the great are remembered in song. 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 elegant 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. And, for me, this works well: I find Kay 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 familiar range: the thoughtful warrior; the singer / artist; the strong, independent woman; the noble unrequited lover; the man governed by principles rather than social obligations. And he is a truly sumptuous writer. That's not to say that he uses 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. There is 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. And, if you can allow yourself to be transported by a story of crackling fires and fur cloaks in winter; 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.
For a full review, please see my blog.
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Reading one of Guy Gavriel Kay's books is always a special event for me. I have to put everything else aside, sit down and lose myself in his world. His wonderfully lyrical writing style always takes me a few pages to get my head around, because it is so different, eloquent and - imo - so superior to other writers in the genre. He paints pictures with words yet not a word is wasted, and every one goes towards building character or atmosphere or a sense of time and place. Another thing I like about GGK is that, although he writes in the fantasy genre, most of his books are stand-alone novels that require no prior knowledge to be enjoyed, even though many of them are set in the same world (but in different regions). This is not high fantasy, or even epic fantasy, though, so be warned. This is historical fantasy, and Kay's evocative writing is perfectly suited to this sub-genre.
A Song for Arbonne is another jewel in his crown, I think. It is his version of Medieval France, starting 23 years before the main text as the heir to the country's throne rides out to meet with her lover, and then jumping ahead to tell of the subsequent feud between her husband and lover, interweaving this with religious intolerance and political struggles between the Arbonnais and the neighbouring Gorhautians. It tells of the troubadour culture, and how they moved freely between the powers, spying and lending their services in many other ways. As always, GGK keeps the action on focused on his characters (who are - again - wonderful) and builds layer upon layer of complexity into their relationships which always has some emotional pay-off in the end. There is romance and intrigue, excitement and humour, and one particular large scale battle which is handled superbly.
Along with the genius of Steven Erikson, Kay is fast becoming my favourite author, and this is just another wonderful novel, which deserves to be ranked alongside his brilliant Tigana, and The Lions of Al-Rassan.
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So far I have simply loved Kay's alternative history novels. A Song for Arbonne is no exception to the rule: it's an excellent story. Set in beautiful Arbonne, the book's actual historical setting is the medieval France of the troubadours. Arbonne is ruled by women, full of music and courtly love, while the northern Gorhaut is an extremely masculine country bent on war.
One can guess what happens with a setting like that. However, despite that, the story manages to be surprising and full of unexpected twists. The characters are many-faceted and full of life. The plot makes sense and packs in plenty of action, intrigue and romance. Religion plays a big role, as does family.
Kay is a master: A Song for Arbonne is another fine story well told. Even though the book is labeled fantasy, there is very little supernatural in it, so as long as one is interested in medieval themes, even those who dislike most fantasy books will be able to enjoy this one.
I have greatly enjoyed Guy Gavriel Kay's writing, and even found "The Fionavar Tapestry" engaging, if not equal to his later, more mature work. Kay is certainly one of the best and most original writers fantasy has to offer, and this work remains a favorite. Like "The Lions of Al-Rassan" and "Sailing to Sarantium ", the story is loosely based upon a historical period and culture, in this case the troubadour era of Mediterranean Europe. Kay interweaves his tale with the customs of medieval knighthood as well as the conflicting worship of a patriarchal sun god and an older, magical veneration of a goddess familiar to anyone having studied Robert Graves. Interlaced into these plot motifs are elements of court intrigue, mystery, and familial skeletons in the closet. Yet out of this seeming disparate stew Kay is able to distill a complicated tale of conflict that is not only believable but attains a life of its own. Unlike much fantasy fiction, the characterization is mature and complex, both in thought and motivation, and Kay's characters evolve with the story. Further, neither the plot nor the players always follow what is expected, yet at no time does the action become contrived or a stretch of one's credulity. Kay obviously loves the unforeseen twist, and cleverly calls it to use. And I think you'll find the aftermath to "A Song for Arbonne" an unsuspected delight.
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This is is my first GGK novel and I was a little dubious at first thinking it was going to be a silly romance. However, I loved it! Characters are so alive and interact with an intriguing plot. This author is now on my 'To Read' list and I will buying all his books.
Arbonne, a fantasy land based loosely on the lands and troubadour culture of Medieval Aquitaine and neighboring states, faces a threat from the country that lies on its Northern borders, Gorhaut. As war draws nears the Arbonnaise are forced to prove their worth, despite their reputation for effeminacy and gentleness...
I have only read this one book by the author but am now looking forward to reading many more! This novel has it all: a deliciously evil villain, ancient feuds, family tensions, fights to the death, carnivals, assassinations and some very compelling female protagonists. The pacing is simply excellent, the characterization is mature and believable - we really see some of our central protagonists grow and learn. It is the Arbonnaisde women, whose rule over their knights is so hateful to masculine Gorhaut, who are particularly fascinating. Although this book is stand alone it feels almost like Kay has expressed succinctly what most authors would put into a trilogy, and the book is the richer for it. The swift sequence of events keeps your attention, dialogue is snappy but does not suffer, as many fantasy authors do, from anachronisms or jarring quotes (George R R Martin's use of a bible verse in his Song of Ice and Fire trilogy nearly made me hurl the book away in disgust).
For those interested in Medieval Europe, it is fascinating to match places and characters with real life inspirations - Portezza is surely Italy,and the saucy and incestuous Lucianna Delonghi is surely modelled on Lucrezia Borgia (or the more lurid tales spread about her). despite these similarities, the world Kay has constructed is comprehensive and stands very well on its own. This is a fantastic book, well written, amusing and intriguing. A must for anyone looking for an escape to fantasy which doesn't entail a five to ten book series and endless waits for authors to publish the next installment.
I have read most of GGK's work and have plans to read the rest. This has been thus far my favourite; beautifully written and very absorbing. I highly recommend this author in general and this book in particular.
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I had read GGK's fantasy Fionavar Tapestry series at school and had enjoyed it, but it was only many years later I discovered that Kay had written this series of alternative history/historical fantasy novels. The first one I bought and read on a whim was this book.
If I had reviewed it right at the time, when I was heavily into straight fantasy and knew little of the wondrous mix of history and fantasy that is possible, I would still have given it four stars plus.
The characters in the novel stood out for me; particularly Blaise de Gorsenc and his brother Ranulf. I spent most of the book, once I had become lodged in its pages, shouting at the pair to sort themselves and their family problems out and then everything could work out. I since, having read Kay's other novels, realise that this is a key element to his novels and one of the things that makes them priceless to me.
Years on, I have read it several times, and every time I do so, I would add a star. It should now rate about eight out of five. Although at first reading I have found others of his works to surpass this, whenever I look back over the whole bunch, it is 'Song' that brings a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye.
Cannot recommend it enough. Buy it or be forever missing something.