Guy Gavriel Kay,
A Song For Arbonne
(Crown, 1992; Earthlight, 2001)

Guy Gavriel Kay's A Song For Arbonne is set in his double-mooned fantasy world, with strong shadings of medieval Provence (France). The harsh northern kingdom of Gorhaut, with its debauched king and misogynist clerics of the God, is looking greedily over its cramped borders to bountiful Arbonne, land of sun and song under the female-oriented rule of the Goddess. A tale unfolds of betrayal, misunderstandings, longing, lust, love and lifelong enmity. Pride and beauty are framed by the scenery of the land and the songs of the troubadours.

Central to the present narrative is Blaise de Garsenc, who is haunted by memories of the last war in his native Gorhaut and the shame of its diplomatic aftermath, seeking independence from his father's calculating domination and an escape from a land in which he has no pride. As the story unfolds, we slowly are permitted to understand what memories drive him and how the unfamiliar influences he encounters in Arbonne contribute to the shaping of his destiny.

A Song For Arbonne begins in the past, and the consequences of those past deeds appear throughout the story like a haunting refrain, introducing, underlying and finalising all the action of the tale. The Arbonnaise nobility are split asunder by these inescapable echoes of past tragedy. The noblemen and warriors of Gorhaut, disdaining the perceived weakness of all women, are ultimately affected by the actions of Rosala de Garsenc. She is wife to Ranald, the weakened drunkard who is subject to the corrosive malice of his King and the scorn of his father, Gerald, Primate of Corannos the God. Throughout, the actions of the ladies and the reactions of the men can be seen as being dictated by the influences of the past, much as the steps of a pavane are influenced by the pace of the music.

Kay uses his enviable skills to bring the characters, both major and minor, to vibrant life. He shows uncanny empathy for his female characters, and it is impossible to dismiss any one person in the book as a certain "type." The strong and invincible yet have their flaws; the weak and timid yet have their individual strengths. From the Borgia-esque Lucianna ensnaring men with her provocative decadence to the celibate Beatritz channeling the Goddess' will, the female figures are anything but predictable. The same may be said of the deceptively simple Luth, and the obsessively Machiavellian Gerald, who confounds understanding! The reader is powerless in Kay's spell: these people are so real they demand total involvement; if you don't care what happens to them, don't care how they feel, then you are either an automaton or comatose!

If A Song For Arbonne doesn't make you weep, it will surely pluck at your heartstrings. Don't think it is a "chick novel," though -- there is enough machismo, warmongering, sexual shenanigans and political machinations to keep any red-blooded male happy. It is a story of war, on many levels -- personal defiance, religious interpretation and civil division. It is a story of love, on many levels -- passion between lovers, friendship, love of country and sibling devotion. Always, interweaving throughout the dialogue and the drama, is song: the troubadours, the lyrics and the music. It as necessary as breathing and sets the mood throughout the story, which is, of course, as its title suggests, a song.

Kay writes beautifully, adding A Song for Arbonne to the rest of his priceless gems on my necklace of memory.

[ by Jenny Ivor ]
Rambles: 4 May 2002

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