I was asked in comments the other day about Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry trilogy and how it compares to his latter works. I gave a short response, but it occurs to me that I might not have ever actually delved into my opinions of each of GGK's books (eight so far, with a ninth coming out next April). So I wrote this post in Word, saved it, and then in my sinusitis-induced stupor of the last couple of days forgot about it altogether. Here it is. In short, if you enjoy fantasy and you haven't read GGK, then you are a charlatan who should be thwacked with a big salmon!
(All of GGK's books, to my knowledge, are in print. The first five novels were recently reprinted in trade paperback editions with new artwork. As always, your first stop for GGK info should be Bright Weavings, the "official" home of GGK on the Web.)
:: The Fionavar Tapestry. This is a trilogy consisting of The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road. This trilogy if GGK's first published work, and it does show in some ways. On first reading I found it hard to get into. This isn't a series that really "grabs" the reader. I wasn't engrossed until about halfway through the first book, when one of the characters engages an act of self-sacrifice that was very moving. After that point I could not put the series down. The other big flaw is that I found it very easy to miss key details in the story that end up playing a huge role in the tale later on.
The Tapestry is a Tolkien-style epic fantasy, complete with dwarves and elves (here called the "lios alfar") as well as orc-like creatures ("svart alfar"). The action takes place in Fionavar, which is actually the first of all worlds. Five college students are recruited from our own world to go to Fionavar basically as visitors, but they are soon drawn into the elemental struggle between good and the Dark Lord Rakoth Maugrim, who has recently been freed from his supposedly-eternal prison. Maugrim threatens nothing less than the destruction of all worlds.
In reading this trilogy, the experienced reader of epic fantasy will note the appearance of just about every epic fantasy trope that has ever existed in the genre: Elves leaving forever for the West, Dark elves on wolves, and dwarves in their mountain halls are mixed with Celtic Myth, and King Arthur and Lancelot even show up. This, according to GGK, is purely intentional. GGK pulls out all the stops on this series, crafting a story of epic scale that he doesn't match again in any of his later books (which, to be fair, have a different focus). There are twists, though: characters are not unremittingly "good"; many of the villains are "misguided" as opposed to "purely evil" (although there is quite a bit of the latter as well); and most importantly, there isn't the standard "single quest" upon whose success everything hinges. No "Destroy the Ring to defeat the villain" here; instead, everything hinges on the choices people make and how those choices resonate. I've noted that self-sacrifice is a major theme in all of GGK's books, but in the Tapestry it is the major theme.
The "everything but the kitchen sink" nature of the story might put off some, and readers familiar with the restraint and subtlety of GGK's later works will likely be surprised (to say the least) with the way his heart is on his sleeve here. But even with the rough patches in the Tapestry, the trilogy is still the GGK work that I re-read most often.
:: Tigana. With this book, GGK started his progression away from standard epic fantasy into the use of fantasy to explore historical themes. There is still a great deal of magic here, but the focus on magic starts to lessen. Tigana seems to be, by consensus, GGK's finest novel; it is also, strangely enough, my least favorite of his novels. Go figure. (I hasten to add that for me to claim a least-favorite GGK book is rather like if I were to claim a least-favorite 1990s Super Bowl run-era Buffalo Bills player.)
Tigana is set in a land called "The Peninsula of the Palm", which is so-named because it is roughly hand-shaped. The Palm is divided into a number of small, petty kingdoms that have difficulty ever coming together for any length of time. The amalgam here is Renaissance-era Italy. (All of GGK's post-Tapestry novels are fantasy analogues to real historical locales.) A musician named Devin ends up joining a band of troubadours, who it turns out are actually revolutionaries led by Prince Alessan of Tigana, a kingdom of the Palm whose last ruler so angered a wizard named Brandin that the wizard worked a spell that erased the very memory of Tigana from the entire world, so much so that the very name "Tigana" cannot even be heard by the people of the Palm. Alessan's struggle is to restore his kingdom.
What makes the book so good is its moral ambiguity. Brandin is clearly the villain, but he comes off very sympathetically; likewise, Alessan the hero commits acts that are morally questionable (most notably, when he "binds" a wizard to his service). A question that constantly arises in GGK novels is the degree to which evil can be worked in service to good and vice versa, and he really brings that home here.
My own problem with Tigana is mainly in its pacing. The book suffers a bit because GGK has to resort to "infodumps" on occasion -- there's a big one early on, centering on Dianora, whose personal story is compelling in the end but takes forever to get going, in my eyes. Many of these infodumps follow a shift in scenery after a previous plotline is really getting engrossing. But this is still a great book.
:: A Song for Arbonne. This is the book that introduced me to GGK, and purely by random chance, too: I spotted it in the "New Books" section of the library when it came out, and I thought, "What a cool cover!" (That cover can be seen here.) What luck, eh? Generally, this tends to be the least favored of his books when I see rankings online, but as my first GGK book I have a soft spot for it. I definitely think it's the most "satisfying". There is less of the moral ambiguity of Tigana, and the magic recedes even farther into the background. This could almost be a historical novel, if not for the fact that Arbonne does not exist.
Arbonne is, basically, Provence in disguise, and the whole book is an exploration of the horrible Albigensian Crusade, in which French Lords took a break from crusading for the Holy Land to stamp out the infidels in their own lands. It was in the Albigensian Crusade that one of the most infamous utterances of war ever was spoken: when asked how the soldiers were to differentiate between the faithful and the heretics in a certain city, the commanding Lord is reported to have said: "Kill them all; God will recognize his own." (Given the brutality of the Albigensian Crusade, I am a bit surprised that GGK did not write a more brutal novel.)
The conflicts in A Song for Arbonne aren't as deep as those in Tigana, but they are more "romantic" in nature; love lost and love wronged are the main themes here. This is the GGK book most likely to please fans of romance novels, I think. (I do not share the common prejudice against romance novels.)
:: The Lions of Al-Rassan. Hands-down, this is my favorite GGK novel. There is romance that exists on a more tragic and desperate level than in Arbonne; the setting – a fantastic analogue of Medieval Spain during the time when the Moors were being pushed out – is exotic and evocative; and the religious themes are fascinating. GGK creates three religions to mirror the three real-world monotheistic faiths: the Jaddites (Christians), the Asharites (the Muslims), and the Kindath (the Jews). With this book I really started to understand what GGK was doing in using fantasy to explore themes from our own history. It's quite a tour-de-force.
What's most impressive is that there is no real "plot". Instead, GGK presents a set of lives that intersect in surprising ways in a period of immense turbulence when one nation is passing and another is forming. As such, nearly every development in the book is surprising, including the climax which seemed to me both inevitable and surprising.
I've made the analogy before that Lions is similar to Casablanca in that its greatness really becomes apparent upon a second reading (or viewing, in the case of the film), when early events can be interpreted in the light of what we know is to come.
I dearly love this book. Were I given only a single GGK book for that desert island, this is the one I'd take.
:: The Sarantine Mosaic. This is a duology comprising Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors. Here is another of the "transplanted European history" novels GGK has been doing; now we're in his version of Byzantium. (The fact of this book's setting played a small part in the naming of a certain weblog!) There are more religious themes, here focusing primarily on the Jaddites and a smaller sect within them called "Heladikeans", who are largely viewed as heretics. A major sub-theme is how art properly reflects faith, and the big theme is the universal human desire to leave something of worth behind when we have died. Most of the major characters are striving to leave their mark on the world, and in a lot of different ways. There is an Emperor who wishes to build the greatest temple to Jad in the world; there is a chariot-racer who wishes to be the greatest in memory; there is a cook who wants to leave behind a boy who cooks as well as he does; and the main character, a mosaicist named Crispin, is obsessed with ideas about color and light.
The Sarantine Mosaic is, like The Lions of Al-Rassan, a book without a single plotline. Instead, it is about a handful of lives and how they interact with the backdrop of history and become part of that backdrop. This focus on a number of different lives provides GGK with his literary equivalent of a mosaic, in which tiny squares of colored glass add up to an entire picture.
The Mosaic is set in the same world as Lions, although its action happens five hundred or so years prior to the earlier book. The attentive reader will spot ways in which the action of the Mosaic anticipates that of Lions. I also found this book's prologue very hard to follow, but here again GGK has hinted that this effect is intentional, another literary rumination on the nature of a mosaic. I also found this work to be the least "overtly" emotional of GGK's books. Not that there is less emotion, but it is of a more meditative nature. I have heard other readers refer to earlier GGK books reducing them to tears (I'll admit it, there are scenes in the Tapestry, especially in the third volume, that have me blubbering every time I read them), but I haven't encountered anyone saying this of The Sarantine Mosaic. This is not a fault, though – just a difference.
:: The Last Light of the Sun. No, I haven't read it yet. Apparently Mr. Kay thought I was kidding when I dropped all those hints on the message boards over at Bright Weavings about wanting a signed copy of his manuscript. Tsk.