A Song for Arbonne

Reviewed: August 27, 2004
By: Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher: Penguin Books
513 pages, $18.99

What's a nice boy from Weyburn, Saskatchewan, doing being an internationally acclaimed fantasy author?

Was it his education? He gained a B.A. in philosophy in 1975 and then trained to be a lawyer, receiving an L.L.B. in 1978. That doesn't seem to be the key.

Was it his work? In the `70s he was an assistant to J.R.R. Tolkien's son and literary executor Christopher Tolkien, helping to prepare The Silmarillion for publication. There seems to be more of am influence here.

He moved on to work in the media in Canada. Then, while working on CBC radio series “The Scales of Justice” from 1982 to 1989, his fantasy novels began to appear.

The first three formed a somewhat Tolkienesque trilogy called The Fionavar Tapestry which was nevertheless much more original than work other people were doing at the time. Lots of high magic and world saving stuff.

Since then he's been doing something quite different, working on smaller but more intense canvasses. Kay still writes fantasies, but the fantasy element, though central to the underpinnings of each of his books, is limited in scope. There's not a lot of spell casting going on in the typical Kay novel even though there is a sense of magic running through them.

What Kay has done is to seek his inspiration from the Medieval history of a number of European states, warping the events to suit the story he wants to tell. A Song for Arbonne draws on the history of Languedoc, in what is now southern France. It was a cultural centre, and much of what later became the traditions of courtly love and chivalry originated there, spread by the troubadours who travelled that land and all of Europe.

No surprise then that the power of song and verse plays a great part in this tale, and that many of the central characters are troubadours and jogulars.

This was also the region of the Cathar heresy, which was fiercely stamped out by the French king with the encouragement of the Pope. Likewise, the events of Arbonne involve a religious dispute between differing interpretations of what is essentially the same religion. Kay's tale has a more positive resolution, since the war it chronicles is essentially the creation of one man, rather than being a popular social movement.

Indeed, this is almost a family story. A number of the key characters have connections which go beyond politics and state craft and, since family problems can be among the most intense of all, there's lots of scope for drama. Much of this has its origins in events from some 20 years before the main tale, with a kind of Romeo and Juliet story that ends badly. This ending is offstage though, after the prologue, and we are made aware of it through people's memories and local legends as we move into the main story in chapter 1.

We spend a lot of the book with Blaise, a mercenary soldier who has left his homeland of Gorhaut over quarrels with his domineering father, the High Elder of the the male dominated religion of Corannos, the sun. I thought for a while that it was gong to be the story of a wandering sword for hire, but it becomes a lot more. As the story progresses Blaise is taken into the service of a powerful soldier/troubadour in Arbonne and finds himself standing in opposition to the machinations of his father, who intends to wipe out all influence of the goddess Rian (the moon) within the society of Arbonne.

I mentioned the importance of culture in Arbonne. One can be destroyed almost as effectively by a song as by a sword here, though most of the songs are of the more romantic type. Another key character is Lisseut, a singer (jogular) who performs the works of her troubadour partner. She assumes the role of an unofficial chronicler to the unfolding events, but these trigger her own abilities as a composer, and she becomes a major player in a land where art is almost as important as armor.

Things seem to move at a fair clip in this book, and yet it takes a year to tell the story, the chapter divisions being grouped within sections named for the seasons. At any rate, it's a year well spent.