Archive for the ‘Guy Gavriel Kay’ Category

As we enter the last hours of 2019, I’m not quite ready to let this year go.  I loved 2019; it was full of achievements, wonderful times with family and friends, lots of travel (I went to Europe twice!  And on my first trip I absolutely fell in love with Brittany) and, most excitingly, a new nephew.

With all that going on, I completely collapsed as a blogger, reviewing almost nothing, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t reading!  Here are my favourites (ranked, obviously) from this year:

10. Clouds of Witness (1927) – Dorothy L. Sayers
I reread Strong Poison for the 1930 Club and enjoyed it but it was this earlier volume that reminded me of all the things I love about Sayers.  Here she has set up a perfect country house murder scene, made even more perfect by the fact that this time it is Lord Peter’s own family members who are suspected of the murder.  Sayers introduction of the other houseguests as they eat breakfast is perhaps the best scene she ever wrote and the entire novel just shines.  It also allows plenty of time for Charles Parker (let everyone else be in love with Lord Peter, for me it’s always been the solid, hardworking Charles), which I can only view as a good thing.

9. Home Fire (2017) – Kamila Shamsie
Good lord, what a book.  Set across three continents and told by a variety of narrators, Shamsie crafts a heartbreaking contemporary retelling of Antigone.  Unforgettable.

8. A Green and Pleasant Land (2013) – Ursula Buchan
Such fun!  Buchan tells the story of how Britain worked to improve food production during the Second World War.  It’s full of the sort of little details I love – did you know tomatoes were grown in ornamental pots outside of gentlemen’s clubs in St James? Or that, pre-war, only 9 of every 100 onions eaten were grown in the UK? –  and does a wonderful job of highlighting the professionals whose hard work and innovation truly made a difference.

7. Mountain Lines (2017) – Jonathan Arlan
I have no idea how this passed me by when it was first published but I’m so glad I stumbled across it this year.  Arlan writes humorously and honestly about his journey along the GR5 trail from Lake Geneva to Nice. For me, this was the perfect style of travel memoir and inspired me so much that I literally put the book down mid-chapter to reach out to my friend and convince her to go hiking in Austria.

6. Piglettes (2015) – Clémentine Beauvais
An utterly joyful YA novel about three teenage girls who, having been cruelly and publicly named by their peers are the ugliest girls in their town, band together to pursue the things they want most.  By cycling to Paris.  While selling sausages.  It is full of energy and humour and insecurity and confidence and I defy anyone not to love it.

5. Last Witnesses (1985) – Svetlana Alexievich
A bleak but incredibly moving oral history of children’s lives in the USSR during the Second World War.

4. A Brightness Long Ago (2019) – Guy Gavriel Kay
A new novel from Kay is always cause for celebration and this one absolutely did not disappoint.  It ranks among his best works and artfully weaves Italian Renaissance history into Kay’s fantasy world, laying the foundations for the events of Children of Earth and Sky.  It is intelligent, entertaining, and through Kay’s uncharacteristic use of the first-person perspective for much of the book, even more poignant than usual.  I loved it and look forward to rereading it again soon.

3. The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) – Rosemary Sutcliff
Inspired by Slightly Foxed’s reissuing of this, I picked it up for a reread and was immediately caught up in Marcus’ story and quest for the eagle of the famed lost legion.  This is historical fiction and children’s writing at its absolute best.  It’s a book my father loved as a child, that I loved, and that I hope the next generation of our family will love just as much.

2. Invisible Women (2019) – Caroline Criado Perez
Until last week, I was certain this was going to be my #1 book of the year.  But then a charming Russian count appeared and that was that.  But this was still the single most impactful thing I read this year.  Caroline Criado Perez, the Oxford- and LSE-educated journalist and human rights campaigner (and reason Jane Austen is now on the £10 note), looks at how data bias harms women around the world.  Why do more women die in car accidents than men?  Because cars are designed to be safe for men (there are no crash test dummies based on female body composition).  Why are women 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed when they have a heart attack?  Because their symptoms are different from men’s (and men are the ones who are studied).  The examples go on and on and become more and more maddening.  Invisible Women is an extraordinary and extraordinarily important book and one that should make you mad, regardless of your gender.

1. A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) – Amor Towles
This is a perfect example of why you must always wait until the absolute last moment to select your best books of year: I only finished reading this on Saturday.  And I’ve been bereft every day since that I don’t have more of it to read.  I never wanted this charming story of a Russian count confined to a grand Moscow hotel to end but when it did it was so satisfying and right that I physically hugged the book to myself.  This is clearly going to be a favourite for years to come.

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2016 was an entirely adequate year for me.  I earned my first professional designation after three years of hard work and study, went on some great trips (though, having stayed in North America all year, I really did miss my usual visit to Europe), and, the crucial difference from 2015, none of my loved ones died or seriously injured themselves.  Well done us!

And, of course, there were lots of books.  Here are the best of the best:

books-310. The Lark (1922) – E. Nesbit
This charming story of two young women and their attempts to support themselves is featuring on a lot of “Best of” lists this year and rightly so. And the best news is that it will be reprinted and easily available as of March 2017, thanks to Scott!

9. More Was Lost (1946) – Eleanor Perényi
An interesting and entertaining memoir about life in Central Europe in the late 1930s from a young American woman married to a Hungarian nobleman.

8. Classic German Baking (2016) – Luisa Weiss
Simply put, this is the cookbook I have been longing for all my life. The Christmas chapter alone – heck, just the recipe for Basler Brunsli cookies – would have been enough to earn it a spot on this list. As it is, the other chapters are equally wonderful.

books-27. Lassoing the Sun (2016) – Mark Woods
I feel rather guilty that I didn’t get around to writing about this wonderful book. A journalist based in Florida, Woods set out to spend a year visiting twelve of America’s national parks. Not the necessarily most beautiful or the most popular ones, but “each symbolizing a different issue facing the national parks in the next hundred years.”  A fascinating project, but not the heart of what the year evolved into, as Woods’ mother passed away after a short and fierce illness.  His travels are tied up with his mourning for his mother, his lifelong memories of visiting the parks with his family, and the urge to share that same sense of wonder and discovery with his own daughter.  Really very wonderful and touching.

6. The House by the Dvina (1984) – Eugenie Fraser
This memoir of Fraser’s childhood in Russia (before, during and immediately after the Revolution) is richly and wonderfully told, taking you deep into a close-knit family and a vanished world. It feels very Slightly Foxed-esque and I can only hope it’s on their radar for possible reissue.

5. Terms and Conditions (2016) – Ysenda Maxtone Graham
Speaking of Slightly Foxed, this wonderful history of girls’ boarding schools is one of the most amusing and original books I’ve read in years.

books-14. Saturday’s Child (1914) – Kathleen Thompson Norris
I first read this novel in 2015 and loved it then too but I think it made an even bigger impact on rereading. The perfect dose of both commiseration and inspiration at a time when I was feeling overwhelmed and indulging, like the heroine, in a bit too much “woe is me”-ing and not enough productive action. It’s deeply reassuring to know that a hundred years ago young working women felt exactly the same way I do in 2016.

3. Children of Earth and Sky (2016) – Guy Gavriel Kay
The newest release from the master of historical fantasy, I loved this so much I read it twice this year.

2. To the Bright Edge of the World (2016) – Eowyn Ivey
A magical, enthralling tale of an 1880s expedition into the remote Alaskan wilderness. Beautifully told and deeply satisfying to read, I keep pressing everyone I know to try it.

new-i-was-a-stranger-bunkerbooks1. I Was a Stranger (1977) – General Sir John Hackett
In a year when the world was doing its best to show how cruel and petty man can be, this memoir of the courage and friendship showed by a Dutch family in occupied Holland to the British officer they hid reminded me that, even in the worst of times, kindness, trust, and love can still flourish.  A real gem that I am entirely indebted to Slightly Foxed for reissuing.

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9780670068395Last May I was a basket case.  I was working too much and, when I wasn’t working, I was studying.  Occasionally I tried to sleep but I was so wired that I was getting by on four hours a night.

Into this mess came a ray of sunlight: Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay was published on May 10th.  For a few days, I put aside my other concerns (and text books) and just read.  It was wonderful.  So wonderful, in fact, that I picked it up again on Christmas Day and reread it.

Kay writes historical fantasy with a focus on the historical and only a light sprinkling of fantasy (very light here).  My favourite of his books are inspired by Moorish Spain (The Lions of Al-Rassan), medieval Provence (A Song for Arbonne) and Tang-dynasty China (Under Heaven).  In Children of Earth and Sky, he takes his inspiration from Renaissance-era Europe, specifically focusing on the trading powers of Venice (Seressa) and Dubrovnik (Dubrava) and their complicated relationship with one another and the Ottoman (Osmanli) empire to the east.

Kay is fascinated by stories about borderlands – places where different groups of people overlap, where cultures and religions are in conflict, where anything might happen.  In other books, those people have been emperors and kings, individuals with the power to change and destroy lives.  Perhaps the most noticeable change about Children of Earth and Sky when compared to Kay’s other books is the relative anonymity of his characters.  These are not kings or generals but even their actions have consequences for the lives of many.

At the heart of the book are five characters: Leonora, the disgraced daughter of a noble family who has been plucked from the religious order where her family had left her to act as a spy for Seressa in Dubrava; Pero, a young and talented artist who, like Leonora, is being sent east by Seressa to  spy (in his case on the Osmanli grand khalif); Danica, a fierce young woman seeking revenge for the father and elder brother killed and the younger brother abducted by the Osmanlis; Marin, the youngest and cleverest son of a wealthy Dubrava family; and Damaz, a member of the elite Osmanli fighting force known as the djanni.  Each of their lives changes in ways they could never have imagined – and they in turn change the world around them in ways both big and small.

Kay seems even more philosophical than usual in this book, which is fine by me.  He is at his most lyrical when musing on fate or the fragility of life:

You lived your life in intimate proximity to its sudden end.  Prayers were more intense because of this.  Help was needed, under sun, moons, stars – and some reason to hope for what might come after.

Laughter was also necessary, and found, in spite of – or because of – these close and terrible dangers.  Simple pleasures.  Music and dance, wine, ale, dice and cards.  Harvest’s end, the taste of berries on the bush, tricking the bees from a hive full of honey.  Warmth and play in a bed at night or in the straw of a bar.  Companionship.  Sometimes love.

There were reasons to fear in every season, however, in every place where men and women tried to shape and guard their lives.

Maybe because of this interest, his secondary characters seem more developed (and plentiful) than usual.  The faded Empress of Sarantium, who has lost her empire, her husband and her son but not her wits or strength.  The proud, doomed pirates of Senjan who, loyal to their ruler, march inland to fight against the Osmanlis and meet their fate bravely and on their own terms.  The farm girl whose life is enlivened for a year by the arrival of a tall, handsome boy, giving flight to dreams of a life with him rather than the short, dull neighbour whose farm adjoins hers.  The aging fighter who has spent half his life roaming the countryside, fighting the Osmanlis who took his home from him.  Great or small, their stories are richly told and, whether they appear for a few pages or a few chapters, these characters lived for me.

It is a beautifully-told story and, with its focus very much on human emotions rather than grand events, a poignant one.  I revisited it with pleasure this week and I know I’ll reread it with joy in years to come.

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under-heaven-canadaI picked up Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay late Sunday night and every minute spent not reading between then and when I finished it this evening felt like wasted time.

Kay writes historical fantasies (or, perhaps more appropriately, fantastical histories).  He has used this to explore renaissance Italy (Tigana), medieval Provence (A Song for Arbonne), Moorish Spain (The Lions of Al-Rassan), Viking incursions in Britain (The Last Light of the Sun), the Byzantine Empire (in two books- Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors), and, most recently, China’s Song dynasty (River of Stars).  Each book is meticulously researched, densely plotted, and beautifully written.  I’ve spent the last few years reading them all and now, joyously, have begun rereading.  But for me, Under Heaven, Kay’s epic based on the An Shi Rebellion during the 8th century Tang Dynasty, is his best, most complete, most perfectly balanced work to date.

Across a sprawling empire, Kay tracks the fates of his characters: an aging emperor obsessed with escaping death; his brilliant, beautiful consort, the most influential woman in the empire; an arrogant general; an honorary princess sent to wed a barbarian; a female warrior with a tongue as sharp as her swords; and, at the heart of it all, a young man emerging from the mourning period following the death of his father into a world of ambition, corruption, and near constant danger.

Just writing that makes me want to start reading again from page one.

For anyone who has read Kay’s work, it should go without saying that his research into the period is immaculate.  The culture and values of the Tang dynasty are such an important part of the story, guiding the thoughts and actions of all the characters.  Somehow, with great artistry since even after a second reading I’m not sure how he managed it, Kay passes that strong sense of the culture on to the reader, which in turns informs our understanding of everything that passes.  Also, for history geeks (hello kindred spirits!), in his acknowledgements Kay includes detailed information on the books and experts he consulted during the writing process.

For almost six hundred pages, Kay weaves myths and superstitions, poetry and music into a story of political unrest and upheaval.  He is (always) unbelievably good a creating and sustaining tension.  Even though I had read this before and remembered it well, I still spent the last two hundred pages with my heart caught in my throat as the tension built and, inevitably, chaos erupted.

What makes this his best book though is his ability to balance that external tension with the human relationships between friends and enemies, servants and masters, brothers and sisters.  Who to trust, who to love, who to be wary of – in uncertain times these are important, life-defining questions.

It is a beautiful, complex, enthralling story and, much as I loved it the first time around, I think I love it even more now.  I can’t image a day when I would finish it and not be instantly looking forward to the next time I read it.

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What a strange year it has been, full of changes, new adventures and, as far as this blog is concerned, very abnormal reading habits.  But, however altered my reading schedule may have been, the quality of books remained excellent and it was not at all difficult to pick my ten favourite books from 2013:


10. The Talisman Ring (1936) – Georgette Heyer
Having discovered Heyer a decade ago, I thought I’d read all her best works.  But no, other bloggers assured me, I still needed to read The Talisman Ring.  Nonsense, I thought, but it was Heyer so I was determined to read it anyways.  Of course, I discovered that everyone was right and that this hilarious tale of a fanciful young woman, a dashing smuggler, and their put-upon elders is indeed one of the greatest things Heyer wrote.

9. Alif the Unseen (2012) – G. Willow Wilson
I struggled to review all the books I wished to this year and that included some of my favourites, like Alif the Unseen.  An extraordinary combination of fantasy, religion, and 21st technology, this story of an Indo-Arab hacker who finds himself on the run from the corrupt state authorities is powerful, timely, and above all, engaging.  It was one of only two books this year that kept me reading until late into the night (the other is #6 on this list).

8. The English Air (1940) – D.E. Stevenson
Stevenson is an author whose quality varies dramatically from book to book.  I love her but most of her novels are merely good rather than excellent.  The English Air is one of those excellent exceptions, sensitively following the struggles of a young German man who finds himself torn between England and Germany at the beginning of the Second World War.  Stevenson paints as alluring a portrait of the domestic charms of middle-class pre-war England as anyone but it is her intelligent handling of Franz’s divided loyalties that makes this rise above most of her other works. 2013Books2

7. The Rosie Project (2013) – Graeme Simsion
This quirky and touching romantic comedy about a socially inept Australian scientist’s search for love was an absolute delight.  I loved it so much in fact that I read it not once but twice this year and am now busy pressing everyone I know to read it too.

6. Under Heaven (2010) – Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay, the master of historical fantasy, has now published two books inspired by Chinese history: Under Heaven and River of Stars.  I read both this year and both are extraordinarily good but Under Heaven was, to me, the most absorbing.  Kay is astonishingly good at balancing character development, political intrigue, and action, making for a book that left my pulse racing and my mind whirling.

5. London War Notes (1971) – Mollie Panter-Downes
The fact that I was even able to get my hands on a copy of this all-too-rare book was a miracle; as anyone who has had the privilege of reading this will agree, it is a travesty that it has not yet been reprinted.  During the Second World War, Mollie Panter-Downes’ “Letter from London” was published every second week in the New Yorker magazine, giving her American readers a glimpse of the wartime experience in London.  In typical Panter-Downes fashion, she is observant and articulate, intelligent and unsentimental.  These letters capture Londoners at their best and worst and are an extraordinary historical record as well as examples of first-rate journalism.


4. Framley Parsonage (1861) – Anthony Trollope
I had some reservations but, for the most part, I adored the fourth book in Trollope’s Barsetshire series.  Trollope’s handling of the virtues and failings of his young men reminded me once more of the truthfulness of his writing (and the consistency of human beings, regards of the century) while his female characters, young and old, were delightfully strong, funny, and sympathetic.

3. The Harold Nicolson Diaries (2004) – edited by Nigel Nicolson
An absorbing and revealing collection of wonderfully-written diaries and letters, I loved getting to glimpse all the different facets of Nicolson’s character, from youth to old age.

2. A Time of Gifts (1977) – Patrick Leigh Fermor
In another year, this might have grabbed the top spot.  Fermor’s account of the first leg of the charmed journey he took across Europe as a teenager is beautifully written and had me longing to set out on adventures of my own. Speaking of Jane Austen

1. Speaking of Jane Austen (1943) – Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern
All the other titles on this list were wonderful but not nearly as wonderful as this collection of delightfully eccentric Austen-focused essays.  And, of course, it is the only book I have ever come across that spends a sufficient amont of time lavishing praise on the deserving Emma (if you are looking for the fastest way to my heart, look no further).

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Under HeavenI have made a bargain with myself: I have to review Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay before I can start reading Kay’s most recent book, River of Stars.  I am a harsh task master since there is nothing I want to do more right now that start reading the new book but one must have discipline.

Kay is the master of historical fantasy.  He began his writing career with the Tolkien-inspired high fantasy series The Fionavar Tapestry but his real success has been with fact-inspired novels like A Song For Arbonne (set in medieval Languedoc) and The Lions of Al-Rassan (which focuses on the tensions between Muslims, Christians and Jews in medieval Spain).  In Under Heaven, he takes Tang Dynasty China and the An Shi Rebellion as his inspiration and the results are spectacular, easily on par with The Lions of Al-Rassan, which, until now, I had considered his best work.

Shen Tai has spent two years among the dead.  Living alone on the plain between the kingdoms of Tagur and Kitai, where years before a great battle was fought, Tai spends his days burying the bones of the dead and his nights listening to the ghosts of those he has not yet buried.  A young man with many talents but no fixed career, Tai has chosen to spend the official two and half year mourning period following his father’s death burying the dead at Kuala Nor, to “honour his father’s sorrow” for what happened there.  But before his mourning period is ended, Tai’s quiet is disrupted; first by a gift of overwhelming and terrible generosity, then by an assassin’s attack.

The White Jade Princess, sent twenty years before from her homeland of Kitai to wed the ruler of Tagur and cement the peace between the two warring nations, has bestowed a gift on Tai in recognition of what he has done at Kuala Nor.  She has given him rare Sardian horses, called Heavenly Horses in Kitan, where “Tai’s people longed for them with a passion that had influenced imperial policy, warfare, and poetry for centuries”:

You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly.  You gave him four or five of those glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank – and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.

The Princess Cheng-wan, a royal consort of Tagur now through twenty years of peace, had just bestowed upon him, with permission, two hundred and fifty of the dragon horses.

A gift of two hundred and fifty Sardian horses can change a man’s life.  Or, as Tai knows, end it.

But desire for the horses is not the only reason people might want Tai dead.  Shortly after learning of the Princess’ gift to him, one of Tai’s old friends arrives in Kuala Nor to give him news of his family.  Before the friend can speak, he is killed and the assassin, who had masqueraded as his bodyguard, turns on her real target: Tai.  Tai escapes but it is clear to him that he needs to return to Xinan, the Kitan capital, and discover who wants him dead and why.  In the company of Wei Song, a Kanlin Warrior sent by his old lover, a courtesan named Spring Rain who is now under the protection of the prime minister, to guard Tai, and later the poet Sima Zian, Tai sets off to learn how the world – and his family – has changed in the two years he has been gone.

Meanwhile, Tai’s only sister, Li-Mei, is on a journey of her own.  Once a lady-in-attendance to the empress, Li-Mei has recently been named a princess and is accompanying the true princess, the thirty-first daughter of the emperor, to Bogü where Li-Mei is to become the umpteenth wife of the ruler’s second-son.  It is a great honour for her family, one engineered by her eldest brother Liu, but the canny, sophisticated Li-Mei is horrified that she is being sent against her will to live among barbarians.  A life among uneducated nomadic tribes people on the steppes is not what she had dreamed of during all those years at court, before the emperor fell in love with Wen Jian, the precious consort, and the empress and her attendants were sent away from Xinan:

Li-Mei has prided herself all her life (had been praised by her father for it, if ruefully) on being more curious and thoughtful than most women.  More than most men, he’d added once.  She has remembered that moment: where they were, how he looked at her, saying it.

She is skilled at grasping new situations and changing ones, the nuances of men and women in veiled, elusive exchanges.  She’d even developed a sense of the court, of manoeuvrings for power in her time with the empress, before they were exiled and it stopped mattering. 

She dreams that Tai will rescue her but Tai, by the time her learns of her fate, is too far away to reach her.  But in a way he does save her as Li-Mei’s rescuer comes to her aid become of a debt he feels he owes Tai.  Their journey and the dangers they face are much simpler than the ones Tai and his companions encounter, but no less fascinating.

Kay does everything perfectly in this book.  Really.  He is always so good at spinning complicated webs of political intrigue but here he excels himself.  Tai cannot plot and scheme the way so many of the people around him can, but he is clever enough to at least understand the different character’s motivations.  With the gift of the two-hundred and fifty horses, Tai returns to Xinan as an important man, no longer the insignificant student he had been when he had lived there years before.  He finds himself in the company of the most powerful figures of the day: Wen Jian, the emperor’s crafty concubine; Wen Zhou, the petty prime minister; and An Li, the aging general who soon launches a rebellion against the emperor that results in the deaths of millions.  Kay is masterful at building tension among these characters and the tragic scenes towards the end of the novel are brilliantly executed.

Kay’s female characters are always excellent but here they dominate.  As much as I was enjoying Tai’s journey, I was always so excited when I turned the page to discover that the story had shifted back to Li-Mei.  And the women who surround Tai on a daily basis are extraordinary.  Wen Jian, the Precious Consort, has already changed the empire: her beauty is captured forever in poetry and song, the face and form so perfect that the emperor banished his empress to make room for the younger woman in his palace and court.  But Wen Jian is more than just a pretty face; she has taken full advantage of her exalted position and is as firmly enmeshed in the activities that lead to the rebellion as any of the political leaders.  Spring Rain, the blonde haired, green eyed concubine from Sardia who Tai had loved as a student, keeps mostly quiet, sensitive to her fragile position in Wen Zhou’s household, but is admirably practical and level-headed when disaster strikes.  And it is she who sent Wei Song to protect Tai.  Wei Song, a Kanlin Warrior, is the quietest of the four main female characters but her presence and influence on Tai is inescapable and, after Li-Mei, I loved her best.  When she does speak, she is sharp and witty and certainly not afraid to tell Tai exactly what she thinks of him.

Oh, it is all so good.  I only finished reading it last week (staying up later than I probably should have, but I defy you to put this down once you are within a hundred or even two hundred pages of the end) but already I’m eager to reread it.  But first, on to River of Stars!

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While I’ve loved GGK’s historical fantasies (A Song for Arbonne, The Lions of Al-Rassan), there is something so irresistible about Tolkien-esque high fantasy, which The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay definitely is.  Indeed, there may be too many Tolkien references for some but in a novel like this, where an entirely new world has to be explained to the reader, it is actually quite useful to encounter such familiar features. 

The Summer Tree (1984), the first book of the trilogy, begins at the University of Toronto in Convocation Hall, where the reclusive Professor Lorenzo Marcus is giving a lecture.  Later, our five main characters – Kevin Laine, Paul Schafer, Dave Martyniuk, Kimberly Ford, and Jennifer Lowell – find themselves in conversation with the professor, only to be told that his real name is Loren Silvercloak and that he wishes to take them back to Fionavar, his world, as guests, to the celebration of the King’s 50th year on the throne.  Five strangers, one for each decade of the King’s reign.   I love the idea of five U of T students being transported into this other world but I find it more than odd how willing they are to go (except for Dave, making him my immediate favourite).  But go they do, into a world very different and far more dangerous than the one they have always known.

The first book is mostly a set up for the rest of the trilogy, introducing characters and creating the tense standoff between dark and light that provides the focal conflict.  Important work since this is a plot-driven story and it is vital that the reader have a good understanding of everything that is at stake.  Tension and atmosphere are more important than characterization (again, reminiscent of Tolkien and just about everyone who has ever written an epic fantasy series).  The Wandering Fire (1986) and The Darkest Road (1986) continue the story and with each volume it only gets more complex and more intriguing.  There are some logical leaps that I wasn’t quite able to make or crucial events and actions that seemed to make no sense in any kind of context but I found it was best to just suspend my disbelief and enjoy the journey.  Kay is masterful at pacing – probably his most remarkable skill in these books – and I was constantly breathless while reading, always eager to turn the page and to continue on the journey.

Since plot is the focus here, it seems a shame to give too much away.  But there are elves, dwarves, an exiled Prince, a chilling villain, a child of dark and light who truly controls the fate of Fionavar, and, as if that weren’t enough, an overwhelming dose of Arthurian legend, with King Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot playing significant roles.  With so much happening, there is no chance to ever be bored.

But the characterization was a problem for me.  I cared deeply about the fate of Fionavar and came to love many of the characters from that world but never felt any real affection for most of the five travellers from my world.  The only one whose fate I was really concerned about was Dave.  The other four find themselves wrapped up in mystic, magical plots and I was concerned and intrigued by the challenges they faced but Dave was the only character whose emotional reactions and responses registered with me, the only one who felt authentic through all three books.  And perhaps most tellingly, he is the only one who truly evolves over the course of the story, going from a reserved, insecure young man to a confident member of a close-knit clan, able to accept the love of others and express his own.

While there were many things I loved about this story, I think it is clear in his later books how far Kay has come in terms of characterization and his writing style.  There are a few too many Yoda-esque passages here and far too many moments where characters suddenly understand or see what sad fate awaits them and where all the reader is told is how sad it is, not what the fate is.  Alright and vaguely intriguing the first dozen times, quite irritating every time after.

But Kay does write truly magnificent action scenes.  I would be perfectly happy just reading about one battle after the other, even though that would make for a ridiculously illogical plot.  But he writes them so well, paces them so perfectly, and never focuses too long on any one place or person.  They are magnificent and they are done just as well here as in any of his later works.

A wonderful, entertaining read, certainly one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read, but not quite as brilliant as Kay’s other books.

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I loved The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay.  I loved it even more than I loved A Song for Arbonne.  Admittedly, if anyone had seen me while I was reading the last hundred or so pages, crying my way through them, they might have questioned if it was really love but, for me, it is only the really good stories, the ones that pull me in so completely, the ones with characters and conflicts that engage me intellectually and emotionally, that can make me cry and, in doing so, only make me love the book more.

For me, a huge part of Kay’s appeal is the historical roots of his fantasy novels.  Just as A Song for Arbonne examined a fictionalized medieval Languedoc, The Lions of Al-Rassan looks to medieval Spain, when the peninsula was divided between Christian kingdoms in the north and Moorish regions in the south.  In Kay’s fantastical interpretation, the Asharites, rulers of the rich, highly cultured, religiously tolerant Al-Rassan represent the Muslims; the Jaddites from the north, slightly rough and skeptical of refined arts, the Christians; and the Kindath, dressed always in white and blue, scholarly and scientific, ghettoized even in Al-Rassan, clearly the Jewish minority. The novel deals with the conflict between these religious groups.  As the Jaddites wage a holy war on a weakened Al-Rassan, bent on destroying those of other faiths, the Asharites are forced to look south across the water for support from the desert warriors who share their faith but not their culture of tolerance.  In such a bloody war, both victory and defeat are absolute. 

At the center of this conflict are our three main characters: Jehane, a female Kindath physican from Al-Rassan, Ammar, an Asharite poet, solider and diplomat, and Rodrigo, a Jaddite military commander.  All cultured, educated and well-travelled, they form a devoted if troubled trio, able to look beyond their differing faiths but always conscious that, eventually, their faiths and old allegiances will force them apart, onto opposing sides of the inevitable war. 

The story is told from a number of view points but Jehane’s dominates.  This has less to do with her personal importance than with the unique perspective she has to Ammar and Rodrigo and their relationship.  Constantly with them, the reader sees through her eyes their first fateful meeting and the close friendship that follows.  Both unusually skilled and knowledgeable in the ways of politics and war, they are always planning well ahead of anything Jehane could have anticipated, always perfectly in step with one another.  Kay is heavy handed with his foreshadowing here and from the (heavily dramatized) moment Ammar and Rodrigo meet it is clear how it must end but that does not make their conclusion any easier to bear, not after having followed their adventures and their friendship for hundreds of pages.  Hence the crying. 

As much as I came to respect Jehane and to admire both Rodrigo and Ammar, it was another member of their company, the youngest with the most to learn, the solider Alvar who was the most intriguing character for me.  The others are all extraordinarily tolerant of the unfamiliar and of those of other faiths because their past experiences have exposed them to other peoples and other cultures.  But twenty-year old Alvar, raised by a religious Jaddite mother, initially shares the prejudices of his fellow northerners.  As he comes to know and love Kindaths and Asharites, he still retains his old loyalties but is conflicted even as he is thrilled by King Ramiro’s vision of the entire peninsula united under a Jaddite ruler.  As a soldier, he now knows what the human cost will be, and, as a tolerant man of the world, he now knows the ‘unbelievers’ who will die are innocent of the crimes his faith would charge them of.  Alvar’s fate is revealed in the epilogue and, though it is not the great one he once seemed fated for as the protégée of Rodrigo, it makes a great amount of sense given how events unfolded. 

As in A Song for Arbonne, with its focus on troubadours, Kay uses poems throughout the book, generally presented as the creations of thoughtful Asharites, frequently Ammar.  They are quite beautiful and I was interested to read Kay’s note in his acknowledgements about those whose works inspired him: al-Mu’tamid, ar-Rundi, ibn ‘Ammar and ibn Bassam.  Their names mean nothing to me now but I love knowing where to turn if I want more information.  I am always so pleased when authors give any insight into their research process, especially when it is a topic so completely foreign to me (and medieval Islamic poetry of the Iberian peninsula certainly counts as foreign). 

I am certain that my poor knowledge of Spanish history made me oblivious to some of Kay’s careful parallels but ignorance in no way impaired my enjoyment of this book.  Because Kay writes fantasy rather than fact-based historical fiction, his books are able to stand on their own and always provide sufficient explanations about the politics and history at the heart of his stories.    

I found this to be a thrilling and complex tale of personal loyalties tested in extraordinary times.  It is quite miraculous how – rare for fantasy writers – Kay is able to balance the opposing forces, keeping the reader’s loyalties divided between Al-Rassan and Esperaña, never certain which we hope will prevail.  Each is equally flawed, equally alluring, just like Ammar and Rodrigo, the men who represent them.

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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!

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