I did it. I found and finished every single novel by Guy Gavriel Kay. A Song for Arbonne was a difficult one to locate, but I got my hands on it and this particular reading project concluded a few months ago.
I’ve talked plenty about Mr. Kay on this blog before, and it’s no secret that I think he’s one of the finest Canadian fantasy authors writing today. There’s no doubt Kay cares deeply for language and knows how to craft a sentence, and his historical bent immediately puts him in line with my own interests. However, instead of deep analysis, I thought the best way to mark the occasion was a flippant survey of Kay’s various books done with something less than literary rigour. This time, it’s all about what I thought about these books, just to make things clearer if I reference Kay’s novels in the future.
So without further ado…
The Fionavar Tapestry
I’ve already written at length about this trilogy before. As a restatement: at its worst, it reads like The Once and Future King – The Lord of the Rings crossover fan fiction…but really good The Once and Future King – The Lord of the Rings crossover fan fiction.
What I didn’t go into was my annoyance at the sheer middle-class-ness of the main characters drawn from our world into Fionavar; they end up becoming different people, but while stuck with them at the University of Toronto, I found I had a hard time identifying with these folks. Not only were these young people who already enjoyed class privilege, they also got to go on a grand adventure! So much for personal wish-fulfilment, since it seems Fionavar’s only open for “the normals” and not for a poor ol’ immigrant like me.
So, this one’s often praised as a masterpiece, while out of all of Kay’s books, I enjoyed this one the least. I appreciate that Kay tried to engage with the idea of historical memory, but I don’t think he actually quite got there. He also starts showing a tendency to go off on long tangents describing the vast import of some historical moment, which gets annoying. We’re all too often told how to feel, and get hit with overwrought reminisces on the lost province of Tigana. It’s all so very maudlin, and all so very boring. This is very different from the often lean prose of The Fionavar Tapestry, and pushes the page count up considerably. The histrionics feel entirely forced and the novel’s middle section meanders in a thoroughly unenjoyable fashion. Few of the characters managed to hold my interest, either, due to their tendency to wax emotional at inappropriate times. It all tumbles to a conclusion that adequate, but also dissatisfying. Suffice to say, one female character that should have stayed dead, lived, and one female character that should have lived, died.
Really, I think the novel fails because the focus is too vague, the issues and history leaning too much towards the universal, the characters leaning too far towards the archetypal. I might, however, just be annoyed at how Kay presents rusalki here, which don’t match in anything but looks to their Slavic source.
A Song for Arbonne
It wasn’t the novel I hoped for; instead of interplaying politics in the Albeginsian Crusade followed by appalling destruction, we get a lot of build up and a single battle. The protagonist here is a lot easier to get behind than in Tigana—he’s a straight-talker annoyed with courtly manners, but for all that, he’s still a noble. Once more, we get a cadre of “witty” characters laughing over jokes that aren’t particularly funny, but the novel’s worth it for its descriptions of ersatz Provence. Those are, indeed, quite beautiful.
The Lions of Al-Rassan
Here, Kay moved from the vaguer historical inspirations of Tigana and The Song for Arbonne to a specific historical moment: the Reconquista. The main changes are twofold: one, the timeline has been collapsed into a single generation; two, the three major monotheistic religions have been replaced with ones centred on astral deities (I’ve talked about this before, too). Despite the name swapping, there’s no magic here, it plays out like a historical novel. That is its chief failing, in fact: the religious stand-ins are massively underdeveloped and deep religious motivations become trivial. It’s a secularist spin on the Reconquista that’s just a little distasteful, though I appreciate that here, at least, you can see how shallow secularist interpretations of the Middle Ages can become.
Also notable for some clumsy narrative devices, especially towards the end. (Spoilers to follow). We aren’t told who wins the final fight, and the verbal trickery in the epilogue that hides the result until the last possible moment just to play a joke on the reader concerning one character’s marriage was really tiresome. Kay uses the narrative veil very effectively early on in the novel, he just ended up using it way too much.
An intriguing novel, anyway, but not nearly as good as the duet that came after it, set in the same world…
The Sarantine Mosaic
Two books—Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors. Crispin is a mosaicist commissioned to work on the great dome of the basilica at Sarantium. Crispin is a huge breath of fresh air in comparison to Kay’s earlier characters: he’s not an aristocrat, but a craftsman. Not a shaper of history, but a spectator to it. He can also be genuinely funny, and never wallows in his own cleverness—in many ways, he goes to prove that the witty folk aren’t so clever after all.
This was my first introduction to Kay and I think it’s the right “gateway” book to start with. The setting is clearly the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Justinian, but with some magic thrown in—strangely, the magic only affects Crispin and a few others on a highly personal level, and has almost no influence on the course of history at all. The re-imagined Byzantium-as-Sarantium is extraordinarily well realized, and the plot is, well, Byzantine. There are a few stutter-stop moments in the first volume completely rectified in the second, and my only complaint is the sheer transparency of Kay’s lifting. Swap around the names to their proper ones, and this is a historical novel with some slight alterations to history—like any other mainstream historical novel. The Sarantine Mosaic was far more historically accurate than say, Byzantium by Stephen R. Lawhead and another all-but-forgotten novel of the same name about much the same thing. Anyway, Kay already explained himself on that score, but…
Bassanids? Bassanids? Really, Mr. Kay?
A semi-sequel to The Fionavar Tapestry that is almost entirely unrelated beyond sharing two characters. Not the main character, however. Ned is a 15 year-old son of a famous photographer working in Provence. Wandering around a monastery uncovers a three thousand year old love triangle that plays out at regular intervals through history; it’s a tale of the past bubbling into the present, told with poetic simplicity. Unfortunately, Kay’s background becomes a hindrance again: the present-day characters are aggressively upper-middle class. Ned even listens to Coldplay, and it’s hard to make me sympathize with someone who listens to Coldplay. If there’s any band that expresses the worst elements of the middle class in the western world…it’s Coldplay.
Also notable for a sequence at the end that made me just slightly uncomfortable, where a 20-some year old prepositions Ned. If the genders had been reversed, this wouldn’t have been acceptable. As is, it’s still Not Okay.
Still a lovely book, though.
The Last Light of the Sun
Kay’s finest work. Kay’s ornate style is cut down here to a much rougher use of language rife with sentence fragments and strong images recounting the frozen north. It’s also, for Kay, a surprisingly brutal novel, featuring characters far off from civilization with no pretensions towards aristocratic mannerisms or even the cleverness so often stressed in Kay’s previous work. The tone is far more respectful than The Lions of Al-Rassan in regards to the Christian stand-in Jaddite religion (The Sarantine Mosaic was also much more nuanced, but not to this extent), and also delves into Celtic and Norse myth. Our third outing in the world of two moons takes us to not-Britain during the not-Viking conquest, but with one important difference: all the deeply held beliefs of the people in question are true. In terms of historical fiction, this is the way to go: the characters think in ways that are alien to us, and they are never judged for their seeming irrationality because the world actually is like that.
Also has one of the most beautiful closing sentences I’ve encountered anywhere. Highly, highly recommended.
And, unfortunately, after restraining himself so well in The Last Light of the Sun, Kay released all his pent-up need for self-indulgence in this novel, reaching near-Tigana levels of obfuscating on life and philosophy and the historic moment while completely ignoring the narrative at hand. The setting this time is Tang dynasty China during the An Lushan rebellion; well, except China is now called Kitai (I don’t really like this swap, as Kara Khitai was a real place), and An Lushan, also known as An-shi, is now An Li. Shen Tai, at least, is a character of extraordinary dignity: I liked him, as well as his poet-friend Sima Zian (A.K.A. Li Bo in our world), but Kay’s digression became distracting. Too much “then he knew this was the moment that would change his life forever” moments from too many people. Also features swords-on-backs (nooooo!) and far too many sexy Asian lady-assassins—the Kanlin, who have no real historical precedent and don’t really fit the landscape of the novel. And the matchmaking at the end makes no sense. At all.
That said, Kay does indeed depict an Asian society without importing a white person for the audience to “identify” with, which is a welcome change from just about any other historical novel written by a westerner that’s set in China. It’s also better than Tigana, has some interesting bits, and is fairly sensitive in its depiction of Chinese history…except for the Kanlin.
In any case, I’m eagerly awaiting his next book. This is probably my Last Word on Guy Gavriel Kay. I’d love to do a similar run-down of Charles de Lint, but my God, there’s so many books by him! SO MANY!