Review: A Song for Arbonne

I needed a break the other day. I really, really needed a break. And I had the perfect antidote waiting for me in my Kobo: Guy Gavriel Kay's A Song for Arbonne. For those of you who don't know, Guy Gavriel Kay is a Canadian fantasy author who almost invented and virtually owns the genre of historical fantasy. Kay, in most of his work, takes a historical period and its events and reworks it with fictional names and fantasy elements. In his most recent works he hews very closely indeed to the historical record.

Now Kay might seem a strange choice for escapist literature. He does not shy away from brutality, degradation, and sometimes rather explicit sex, so I would not recommend his works for young teens in particular. But his profound belief in the counter-balancing possibilities of beauty, nobility, and aspiring to higher ideals prevent the nastiness of his stories from taking over. And this is a writer who spends more time reading poetry than novels so his prose, while never pretentious, is also never clunky. It is clean and clear and beautifully simple. He also takes a humble (he would say diffident, that being one of his favorite words) approach to history, renaming countries and historical figures in deference to the fact that he is not recreating history but re-imagining it. The result of all these elements is that he seldom fails to delight me on many different levels, and leaves me feeling profoundly satisfied.

A Song for Arbonne is no exception. It takes place in the High Renaissance, inspired by the vicious war that raged between France and Languedoc. In this fictional universe Blaise, a mercenary soldier from Gorhaut, is working in Arbonne, a land of troubadours and courtly love, traditions for which he has little respect. As the story progresses, we discover the deep tensions that lie between the two countries and also within the two countries. Implacable hatreds threaten the unity of both countries and shift alliances, creating some of the strangest of bedfellows. Blaise discovers that his place in the world is much larger and much more dangerous than he ever could have thought, even as his opinions of Arbonne and its “womanly” culture undergo a radical change. Political intrigue, undying passions, religious fervor, family hatreds, shifting allegiances, the various threads form a tapestry of high drama with very human faces.

Kay loves his characters and it shows. Even minor characters sizzle and pop on the page, full of their own lives and stories. And so we can do little but love them also, even if sometimes it is more a question of loving to hate them. In the same way, we do not feel that we are looking at a remote, strange time from a distance, we are rather plunged into it, and experience the story with all the immediacy of today.

Perhaps the only false note in this song was a Big Reveal in the final chapters which felt abrupt. It was not entirely out of the blue, but I felt it had been inadequately set up, so that it felt awkward and worse, not even particularly necessary to the story. Had I been Kay's editor (now there's a pretentious thought), I would have sent it back to him with a request to either drop it altogether, or make it more integral to the story.

Although A Song for Arbonne, now over twenty years old, did nothing to change my opinion that Kay's latest works are his finest, it still left me in a state of near bliss, and with no regrets of taking an escape in medieval Europe. It fully deserves the label of approval "Gourmet Reading". If fantasy or historical fiction have never been your cup of tea, check it out anyway. I am willing to bet you won't regret it, if you have any respect for superb writing.


Guy Gavriel Kay's website

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