Reading, and considering, Guy Gavriel Kay's historical high fantasies, a strong theme emerges; from Tigana, the first such, to Under Heaven, his most recent, we see not only turning points in history, or in culture, but the dying of a culture, it's slow and mournful ending.  The degree to which this is simply the end of a decline varies, but in The Lions of Al-Rassan, this comes through incredibly strongly; we're seeing the dying days of Al-Andalus, a regional power and hugely influential culture.

The characters of The Lions of Al-Rassan are, as per usual, well written; those we spend most time with, naturally, especially so.  Our El Cid and Ibn Ammar analogues are two of those characters, alongside a doctor named Jehane; each of the three interrelates in powerful, strange ways, defined largely by love and similarity, but also by ties of loyalty, duty, affection, and history.  The three different cultures - Jaddite, of Rodrigo Belmonte (roughly Christian); Asharite, of Ammar ibn Khairan (roughly Islamic); and Kindath, of Jehane (roughly Jewish) - are portrayed as quite varied, Kindath aside (whereas we do see zealots and barely-faithful Jaddites and Asharites, we only see reasonable and faithful Kindath); and in that variation our characters all fall into the same sort of place on the spectrum: faith forms a significant part of their identity, but doesn't - by its strictures - inform their actions.  Every character we meet, from Alvar to Ziri, is portrayed effectively and with a sympathetic eye, excluding the various religious zealots we see; and Kay lets us in on their innermost feelings and thoughts, giving us as readers an additional way to understand the events and world as he portrays it.

Those events are also incredibly well portrayed; The Lions of Al-Rassan demonstrates Kay's strengths in taking both the grand, political sweeps of history and the small, personal things on which events turn and combining them into a single, simple story, which follows the grand implications of personal decisions and the small results of grand events on a huge scale; Kay uses the plot, the exile of both Rodrigo and Ammar to the Asharite city of Ragosa, to explore the events leading up to and comprising the start of war between the Asharite and Jaddite powers in the peninsula.  The bonds of friendship and loyalty, tearing the characters apart and throwing them together, have a major effect on the plot, and the way that Kay draws in a number of elements - personal history being a major one (Kay's theory of history appears to centre on important individuals, not on sweeping narratives and societal pressures, as a rule) - to come to the powerful, grand climax at the novel's close is very well done.

The final thing to note about The Lions of Al-Rassan is another one common to Kay's work; the concern with a lyrical and poetic writing style.  Not only does Kay use poetry in the novel itself, there is also a lyrical style to the prose of the novel as a whole, and a concern with emotion and with individuals spinning off from the plot reminiscent of the great epic poets; both of these recall those epics and, one suspects, actively draw on them.  Kay's writing makes use of a number of techniques which really do add a power and inevitability to the novel, as well as a beauty to it; reading Kay's writing, from Tigana onwards, has the feeling of reading long-form prose, as it flows and moves, and the frequent uses of verse poetry in The Lions of Al-Rassan really highlights this.

In sum, then, the exploration of Al-Andalusan culture and the history of the Iberian Peninsula, with its culture, in the 10th and 11th centuries is beautiful and powerful; Kay's working of the plot and painting of the characters is, as usual, stunning, and I would therefore highly recommend The Lions of Al-Rassan.
Guy Gavriel Kay's post-Fionavar Tapestry trilogy has been of consistently high quality in my experience.  Kay's retelling of the An Lushan Rebellion, or rather the time leading up to it, is of a quality on a par with any of his other history-retellings; indeed, Under Heaven draws the (Western) reader into the foreign culture of C8th China and creates believable, empathetic characters - on all sides, surviving and otherwise, right and wrong.  Indeed, the reader comes out of this novel with no clear idea of who was in the right; and Kay, presumably, intended that here as much as he did in novels like Tigana.

The main character Under Heaven follows is Shen Tai, son of a general who won a victory between the Kitan and Taguran Empires - a victory in a battle with a huge death-toll.  The novel opens with Tai burying the dead, one at a time, in mourning for his father; this rather defines Tai's character - this, and the gift of 250 horses from the Taguran Empress.  That Tagur and Kitai had been at war for years before the peace won by Tai's father 20 years prior to the opening of Under Heaven means that Tai's life is turned upside down by this news.  Tai's character is very well written; we see him maturing, and growing, over the course of the novel - into a competent young man, intelligent and thoughtful, rather than somewhat impulsive at the opening.  Indeed, this rather tends to define our cast; whilst impulses do happen - and Kay demonstrates their long-term effect every time, with asides and offshoots we've come to expect from his style - generally all their actions are well thought out and considered, in all their implications.  Every character is well-painted and written thoughtfully and stylishly, so that whilst they're different they clearly come from the same culture; a very different culture to our own, leading to the reader clearly having an impression of that culture; and no character could be taken from the narrative without taking something essential from the plot and interactions of the cast.

The plot of Under Heaven is intricate and complex; rather than following the politics of the rebellion, we're following Tai's return home and his delicate attempt to balance the various interests standing in his way - and wishing to claim his horses.  Indeed, Tai's story is the centrepiece of the novel, and because of that, we brush against politics, getting simpler, more basic ideas of what led to the rebellion - but also complex relationships and rivalries over petty and important things alike, as in human nature.  Kay's idea of history comes out strongly here, the idea that small events and minor decisions can have a huge impact on world events; and indeed we see huge events having small consequences, too, with figures followed as they leave the narrative of Tai's life.  By the end of the novel, Tai's small action - of burying the dead in memory of his father - has impacted on a civil war that tears an empire apart, and defines the world.

The scale of Under Heaven is simultaneously grand and epic, and small and personal; the characterisation excellent, and the depiction of Chinese C8th culture simple and evocative.  All in all, another tremendous piece of writing from the master of this sort of work.
A Song for Arbonne is, in essence, a love-paean for lo País d'Òc, the birthplace of courtly love, of the troubadour culture, of the court romance.  Kay, into this novel, integrates all those elements and more; he brings in the Albigensian Crusade, albeit in a very indirect and historically inaccurate way, and the world around Occitania; and he brings this early second millenium period to life, beautifully and movingly.

His characters are the primary weapon in the arsenal of emotion.  A Song for Arbonne is one of the most well-characterised Kay novels I have read so far, and given my previous praise for his writing that is saying something; the moulds are broken for these characters, rather than just reused.  The primary cast is large, but centred on Blaise de Garsenc, a man of Gorhaut (essentially the equivalent of Norman France, perhaps?) who starts as a mercenary working for a lord of Arbonne and ends in a much more exalted office, and with a love of Arbonne where he starts the novel with a distaste for it.  A Song for Arbonne is the story of his rise, told relatively straight with a small number of well-used flashbacks; and he is a strong, brilliant character on which to hang the tale, with his code and sense of honour so well-written and intact.  The story is also the tale of the rivalry between En Bertran de Talair, troubadour and lord, and En Urté de Miraval, a rivalry over a woman and a child that tears Arbonne apart over 23 years and plays itself out in the most bloody way; Kay makes it believable, with fantastic characters and powerful personalities who are, in some essentials, so brutally similar, and the rivalry, at the end, makes for some heart-wrenching reading, as A Song for Arbonne really does wring out, in the best epic and poetic fashion, pathos and more pathos.  It would be folly to see the novel as so male-centric though; Signe, countess of Arbonne, and Ariane, lady of the Court of Love, are also at the centre of the novel, with their political actions and personal feelings playing into so much of it, and Kay's sympathetic writing really brings them to life.  Indeed, the whole huge ensemble cast are very well written; this novel is peopled, rather than just filled with characters, by living, breathing people, who we care about deeply, and that is its greatest strength.

The plot is similarly well-crafted.  It draws in a number of elements - the rivalry between Bertran and Urté, past political and military events in Gorhaut, the politics of the Court of Love, and Blaise's own tangled history - to create a grim and powerful tale that is beautiful in its telling as well as deeply moving.  The combination of elements, as we see Blaise slowly grow to love Arbonne and the world turning in on the land of courtly love, gives rise to some inevitabilities - and the way Kay handles these is powerfully effective; A Song for Arbonne has, in many ways, a very simple plot, of a conflict between two nations, but it doesn't lose sight of the impact on individuals of this conflict, nor does it lose sight of the importance of individual relationships in historical conflict, rather using them powerfully to further the plot and for the emotions it elicits.

In the end, especially having visited Languedoc, A Song for Arbonne is a powerful, evocative and beautiful novel, shot through with the poetry and culture it is written to celebrate.  This novel has to be one of Kay's crowning achievements, and an absolutely stunning piece of work.  Truly awe-inspiring.
Last Light of the Sun follows Kay’s pattern of fictionalising historical periods and characters into a fantastical setting; this 10th Century British novel, set in the time of Alfred (albeit with analogous characters, rather than the originals, and some ahistorical events), is very good at transmitting the feel and sense of the culture. Set in the same world as The Sarantine Mosaic (there is reference to a treatise by Rustem on cataracts, something also referred to in the Sarantine Mosaic, as well as to a mosaic chapel outside Rhodias).

The characters are more original than in previous Kay novels that I have read; whilst they’re somewhat similar to each other, they’re not cut from the same molds. They’re influenced and defined by their culture and environment, as well as their pasts; brilliantly, the Anglcyn aren’t perfect, as many historical sources (being English-written) suggest, and Aeldred is well-written with sympathy but not hagiography. Similarly, the Erlings (Norse) and the Cyngael (the Welsh analogue) are separately and sympathetically portrayed. Their cultures are a little over-influenced by stereotypes, but the individuals are all very human and very well-written; there’s a strong theme of common humanity, brought out by Kay with his asides, telling the full lives, beyond the action, of some characters who interact with the main story, playing them out and showing how (whether) they’re affected by it all.

The plot is a brilliant one of revenge, destiny and love. The Erling, Cyngael and Anglcyn groups are brought together and apart by threads of history and family; the novel starts and ends with an Erling raid and the intrusion of the half-world, and comes full circle in the life of one of the Erling characters, Bern, with the consequences of his flight and theft at the start of the novel being dealt with at the close. The whole thing seems to highlight the circular nature of life and destiny powerfully, with the violence, romance, and religion melded together with a lyrical and stylish language creating a compelling novel.

Overall, like all Kay’s non-Fionavar work that I’ve read, this is a powerful and beautiful novel with a huge amount to say in its favour; Last Light of the Sun is an excellent evocation of the end of the Dark Ages in Britain, well-written and enjoyable.
This review is of the concluding volume of the Sarantine Mosaic duology and will contain spoilers of varying degrees for Sailing to Sarantium as a result.  A review of the opening volume is under the preceding link.

Here be spoilers )

The Sarantine Mosaic's closing volume brings this story to an end but makes clear that it doesn't by any means bring the world to an end, and there is much more going on that this story could include; but because it is the story, above all else, of the emotional journey of the mosaicist Crispin, it has a definite conclusion, and a brilliant one at that.  A really good concluding volume demonstrating that Kay is a more-than proficient craftsman of this sort of detailed, beautiful fantasy.
Kay's novel is a beautiful, low-magic fantasy set in a world analogous to the Byzantium of Justinian I (with details like the Victory Riots).  Centred on the rebuilding of the Sanctuary of Jad, with a huge mosaic'd dome accomplished by Caius Crispus, Kay draws into Sailing to Sarantium a variety of political, military, artistic, theological and other details of the ancient world and sets up a number of wonderful conflicts for the concluding volume to the Sarantine Mosaic duology.

The characters are wonderful, if occasionally a little stock - the mosaicist, cook and architect who are each described as the top of their field (albeit only one of whom we meet in much detail, that being Caius Crispus, the mosaicist) are all irascible, likeably unlikeable, creative, kind and gentle but with facades of rage and a tendency towards bluntness; all the noble women are manipulative, use sex to try and get their way, are precariously positioned but brave and intelligent; and all the more physical men (Carullus, Leontes, Scortius) are cut from a similar mold of being gentle, kind, thoughtful and lovely people, but who don't give too much time to the more high-flown intellectual pursuits.  Valerian II is brilliantly drawn and very much not like anyone else in the novel, and despite the stock characteristics of even our main character, Sailing to Sarantium is emotionally moving because we do see things through the eyes of a number of characters are they are distinct - with different styles and focuses for each (Crispus' relentless focus on light and the play of light, for instance) which combine with an emotional truth throughout the story to pack a powerful punch - this is one of those books that had me, at times, choking up a little (or more than a little).

The plot's also brilliantly handled; with numerous little historical details slipped into the narrative, what we have here is a fictionalisation, with fantastic elements, of the reality of history.  The relations of the barbarian Antae in Varena (Ravenna?) with Sarantium, the theological schisms over the divinity or otherwise of Heraklidos, the son of Jad among other issues, the internal politics of Sarantium, the role of the emperor in the west, and other historical issues all become elements of a complex plot centred on Crispus; Kay handles the complexity of the Byzantine period well, with his sympathetic and knowledgeable portrayal creating a deep suspense and wonder even as (historically speaking) we think we know what will happen - we don't, after all, know what truly will.  Interspersed are smaller, more personal plots, and musings on things like the importance and lasting nature of art, and the numinous or divine, that keep the reader even more on their intellectual toes than the characters, perhaps.

All in all, whilst not flawless - Kay's characters do sometimes seem to be slightly differently focused versions of the same person - Sailing to Sarantium is an absolutely stunning novel, rich in detail and beauty.  Lord of Emperors has just hit the top of my "Buy this and read it" pile... and The Sarantine Mosaic duology should do the same to yours.
Tigana is a sprawling, epic novel of extreme proportions: in scope, in characters, in style and in manner.  In contrast to The Summer Tree - in which same multiverse Tigana occurs - everything is much more sure and effective; from the excellent prologue, on a par with The Name of the Wind for the best prologue I've ever read, through the 800-odd pages of the novel to a beautiful epilogue and intelligent afterword.

Kay's characters here are deeply emotionally resonant with the reader; whilst we do have two villains, one of whom is really quite basic and selfish, the other is beautifully, brilliantly well portrayed... and yet he is the more villainous, or the greater villain, of the two; well-motivated, intelligent, and kind as a character, he's also brilliantly nuanced.  Similarly, our heroes are not purely good - they do things that are questionable, and discuss the morality of their actions within the novel, and yet their pain is beautifully and heartrendingly portrayed (there are a number of times this novel elicits tears in the eyes of the reader, effectively and neatly done without being too obvious about it).

The plot manages to avoid simplicity in its relatively basic revenge-quest narrative; we have complex politics playing in with personal need and desire, history and culture playing against ambition and pragmatism.  Yet Kay's tight narrative control allows him to bring these together, through multiple viewpoints in multiple places, through flashbacks and recollection, through a poetic use of time and narrative flow, in such a way that a cohesive and coherent story comes together with incredible power; the romantic elements tie in and connect with the more traditional fantasy fare of revenge quest, and the humour of the novel is matched by its poignant sadness.

The worldbuilding is also worth comment; the empires and the Palm are neatly and effectively drawn, we avoid infodumps in finding out what's happening in the world and what it is like, there are surprises round every corner, and there's a wonderful parallel to real history in the novel, deftly used and drawn out without being overindulgent, that creates a world that really does feel real, even despite the magic of it... and the powerful concept, amazingly imaginative, that drives the novel (rooted, in fact, in the Roman damnatio memoriae, and brilliantly explored).

Overall, this is a beautiful, poetic and emotive novel; Kay's created a brilliant novel, and it's clear why the Speculative Scotsman is such a fan of Tigana.
The blurb on the back of this novel, from Interzone magazine, suggests that The Summer Tree is comparable to Lord of the Rings.  This is, on one level, true - there are a lot of similarities between them; indeed, enough that Kay's work here can be regarded as derivative, though no more of Tolkein than of fellow Inkling Lewis, but in terms of quality, certainly, there's no real comparison.

Kay's characters are sadly simplistic.  Each one has a basic character point or flaw, or some basic event, and from this alone we know what they're going to do and how they're going to act throughout the whole novel - whilst this is more true of both Dave and Paul, who we can see exactly what's going to happen to them from the first - it's also true of others such as Diarmuid; every single action seems to stem from one motivation per character, usually taken to extreme, possibly analysed a little (Jennifer and Paul especially), and then extended outwards.  This becomes rapidly annoying, as the characters are rather less than even archetypes, which Kay suggests they are intended to be.

The plot and writing style of The Summer Tree are all about investigating the world, setting up events, putting out prophecies, placing characters in the right places, creating conflict, fulfilling prophecies, telling us how subTolkeinian the world is (ooooh, the lios alfar...) and making sure that the maximal number of mysteries and bait-and-switch emotional scenes can be packed in.  There are brilliantly powerful moments, largely revolving around Paul's depression, but all the weight is taken out of them by the end of the novel with a couple of twists, really taking all the risks out of the novel; on the other hand Kay's treatment of Jennifer (her sole action? being kidnapped... and physically and psychologically raped. For over three pages. In deep, near-pornographic detail.  There's a serious trigger warning somewhere between pages 380 and 390, which you can really skip over, especially as it is mainly just a Moral Event Horizon - this is indeed the first time we see the Big Bad.

Oddly enough, I couldn't stop reading The Summer Tree - despite all it's problems and issues (and there are a couple I've not even gotten into), despite the sub-Tolkeinian world-creation, despite the lack of agency of any of the characters and especially the women, there's something about it which makes you want to keep reading, perhaps the prose style.  The problem is that the more I read, the more I saw problems in the novel; even the prose style grates, for reasons mentioned above.

I think, in the end, I can't say anything but that The Summer Tree is a disappointment.  Given how much praise is heaped upon Guy Gavriel Kay's work, I am slightly confused by this; perhaps it's a rocky start to a great series, but I'm not willing to stick around to find out, and I suggest you don't either.


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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