I have no way to adequately express the delight I experienced while reading A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay. From the first page to the last, it was a book that made me remember how exciting, how entertaining reading can be, how one story can deliver all the adventure, romance and intrigue that have been missing from my recent reading in an intelligent, captivating way. An introduction in late August to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series reminded me of my youthful passion for fantasy, a genre I’d weaned myself off of over the years though the temptation is always great when I walk past the shelves at the library. Back when I used to read it, more often than not, I ended up disappointed by so many of the fantasy books I tried. Fantasy writers as a whole seem to be big on ideas, not always so brilliant with characterization or plotting. So, being now determined to reintroduce quality fantasy into my reading diet, I knew I had to start with Guy Gavriel Kay, having heard almost universal praise for all his novels. And I was not disappointed.
Arbonne, where the northern mercenary Blaise finds himself as the novel begins, is an idyllic medieval kingdom centred on the romantic ideals its revered troubadours sing of, that its Court of Love celebrates. Unlike neighbouring kingdoms, including Blaise’s native Gorhaut, Arbonne values its women, many of whom hold the highest positions of authority, and revolves around a goddess-centric theology. When the lovers and poets, singers and priestesses of Arbonne find themselves in conflict with the war-bent king of Gorhaut, they seem ill-prepared to face the harsh northern invaders, particularly with Arbonne’s two most powerful nobleman still caught up in a decades-long conflict of their own.
The book covers four seasons, from spring to winter, from Blaise’s arrival in Arbonne to the final battle between the armies of Gorhaut and Arbonne. Each section is wonderfully plotted, moving between characters and locations with ease, all sections of equal interest. There’s nothing worse than having storylines with uneven allure, the kind that always make you want to rush through the boring bits to get on to the characters you do like, but there was none of that here. I found Blaise’s point of view just as interesting as that of his sister-in-law Rosala or the singer Lisseut. What’s most impressive about that is that I didn’t even particularly like Lisseut, but I still love her sections. The characters develop but mostly they do so in a quiet way, without needing to share all their innermost thoughts and struggles with you. You see their behaviours change: as Blaise takes on unthinkable responsibilities, as Rosala chooses a path that will force the war between two nations, as Lisseut…no, not really sure what happens to Lisseut. She does a lot of emotional flip-flopping that seems very human, particularly given how emotionally manipulative stressful situations are, but I found it rather irritating. Still, as a vehicle for delivering plot and insight into other characters, she was extremely valuable and always readable, despite my personal dislike of her.
The female characters were one of the things I liked best about the novel, though that’s not to say that the male characters weren’t excellent too. Blaise is a compelling, sympathetic hero, though set in a very predictable hero mould. His companions, Valery, Rudel, and particularly Bertran, provided just the right level of counsel, moral ambiguity, and comic relief. But the women really stood out. Signe, the aging ruler of Arbone whose daughter prompted the feud that has plagued the country for twenty-three years, is a perfect balance of soft and hard, romantic feeling and political cunning. Ariane, the queen of the Court of Love, is equally intelligent and, what’s more, is presented as someone with is sexually liberated without ever making her appear cheap or manipulative, and is easily able to earn the respect of both her bedmates and the reader. And then there is Rosala, whose flight from male dominated Gorhaut to Arbonne instigates the war between the two nations. But she was brave enough to flee, while heavily pregnant, to seek out a new life on her own and then to bear the events that followed.
War and politics, with a bit of romance and mystery thrown in, this was truly the perfect reading experience for me. After I finished it, I wandered about the house and the library listlessly, looking for something that could equal it – the inevitable hangover that occurs after finishing a much-enjoyed book. I already have more of Kay’s books on hold at the library and can’t wait until they come in!