Eight hundred years ago today, the town of Beziers in Provence became the first city sacked in the Albigensian Crusade. Thus, it seems a good day to post this review.
After Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay continued his exploration of historical themes in fantasy settings with A Song for Arbonne. This was actually the first GGK novel I ever encountered, spotting it on the shelf at the Olean Public Library the year after I graduated college; I checked it out and read fifty pages before abandoning it, for some reason. I don't recall why, since I was favorably impressed with the book. Maybe I went on a trip and forgot to pack it along, or something like that. I didn't get to Arbonne for another year or so, during which I would finally delve deeply into GGK via Tigana and Fionavar.
If Tigana is set in a proto-fantastical Italy, Arbonne takes us to Provence in the time of the troubadours. Arbonne is a beautiful and wealthy land, generally peaceful, whose women tend to share political power with men and whose society is generally more "civilized", placing a high value on love and poetry and song. The guild of troubadours is highly regarded, with many of the greatest musicians being celebrities of very high repute, classic songs enduring for decades and even centuries, and with other songs providing cause for war. In Arbonne the god Corannos is worshipped along with the goddess Rian, and the goddess's worship is led by the priestesses of Arbonne.
To the north of Arbonne lies the more austere and warlike land of Gorhaut, a land devoted to the worship of Corannos and a land that generally views Arbonne with some superstition. Some years prior to the book's opening, Gorhaut has lost a war with a neighboring country farther north, in a very stinging defeat that has seen Gorhaut lose some of its land to that neighbor. Gorhaut's national pride is stung, and the King of Gorhaut is manipulated by his own High Priest, who wishes nothing more than to cleanse the world of the filth and blasphemy he perceives in the land of Arbonne. The main real-world historical analog to A Song for Arbonne, then, turns out the be the Albigensian Crusade. (GGK is wise enough to not have anyone utter the famous, perhaps apocryphal, battle direction from that Crusade against the heretics in Provence, when it was pointed out that one wouldn't be able to tell the good Catholics from the heretic Cathars at sight alone: "Kill them all; God will recognize his own." But the attitude behind that chilling command comes through in all its brutal hatred.)
For a time, GGK's novels would follow a particular formula in their beginnings: they would start with a prelude set some time prior to the novel's main action, in which we see an event that would shape everything to come. The event depicted thusly in Arbonne is, seemingly, of less import than the night-before-final-battle that opens Tigana; here, we see a woman ride out to a clandestine rendezvous with her lover. That affair, however, will all the same turn out to shape everything that is to come, as it lies at the root of a very public hatred and feud between two of Arbonne's highest Dukes, a feud that comes to a head at the worst possible time: as Arbonne is facing invasion from the north by an angry Gorhaut that is eager to reclaim its standing in the world. Its "manhood", perhaps; the differences in worldviews between men and women is a strong underlying theme of this novel.
While there are, as always in a GGK novel, many characters we come to know, the closest to a "main" character is a man named Blaise, a mercenary from Gorhaut who has come, for reasons of his own, to leave his own country behind and take employ to the Dukes of Arbonne. Blaise is intelligent and competent and destined for far more, obviously, but he spends a great deal of the book having his own preconceptions of Arbonne challenged and shifted. Few writers that I've encountered are as good at having their characters changed by the actions and events of their novels as GGK, and the same holds here.
A Song for Arbonne is less violent than Tigana and its following book, The Lions of Al-Rassan, and despite its focus on court politics and intrigue, it has a generally less epic feel to it. GGK's ultimate theme in this book is to show how world events can be shaped by such simple and intimate emotions as love. I also have always found Arbonne to be more tightly constructed than Tigana, which, for all its virtues as a book, still feels a bit disjointed and episodic to me; Arbonne feels more confident in its structure. This might prove a small fault at the ending of the book, where things are tied up with surprising tidiness; but still, the revelation at the end as to just where a certain arrow was shot from, during the final battle, is a nicely satisfying surprise, and as always with GGK, he leaves certain questions unanswered – such as, to whom did Blaise eventually give the yellow rose?
Next up: The Lions of Al-Rassan (although I'm taking a small break from my GGK re-read, in order to knock off some other books I've been wanting to read).