Following on the heels of the success of his 1990 Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay’s 1992 A Song for Arbonne finds the author moving in a slightly new direction. Toning down the magic but upping the ante from a soft-fantasy/romance point of view, the novel is almost a paean to the virtues of femininity. Set in a fantasy version of medieval France and focusing on the Court of Love, music is once again an art form at play. No wizards or powerful displays of magic, this time around court politics which value musical composition and performance are set against the lascivious and aggressive dogma of the neighboring country, Gorhaut. Style uneven, the remainder is a typical Kay story, heroism, religious conflict, honor, and loyalty carrying the day.
A Song for Arbonne features a variety of characters and points of view. The main character is Blaise, a mercenary warrior from Gorhaut who now makes his home in Arbonne working for the nobility. An outcast, Blaise’s father is the religious leader of the Gorhauts, a country firmly ensconced in the male-centric beliefs of the deity Corrascon. Arbonne a follower of the female god Rian, a religious/cultural knife threatens to cut Blaise in two as he balances his heritage with the ambitions of the queens and dukes, troubadours and ladies of Arbonne he has sworn to protect. Assassination attempts, court intrigue, and moments of destiny beyond his control, it is not long before war threatens the land and Blaise must declare his allegiance.
Covering exactly the same thematic territory as Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, Last Light of the Sun (and seemingly every other Kay book), honor, loyalty, fate, upholding virtue—the classic tropes of myth—likewise fill A Song for Arbonne. To this Kay adds focus on one additional theme: feminine virtue. Arbonne ruled by women and watched over by a female god and clergy, femininity permeates the book. A variety of societal contrasts are foregrounded by Kay in presenting a society ruled by women versus one ruled by men, e.g. dialogue vs. conflict, arts vs. military, a sense of décor vs. boorish behavior, and others. Far from morally ambiguous, the idylls of Arbonne are set overtly against the evils of Gorhaut, rendering the story a fairy tale, rather than social commentary.
LastLight of the Sun saw Kay experimenting with style, producing a lean book which left more written between the lines than in them. A Song for Arbonne also sees Kay experimenting with style, but to far less success. Intentionally jumbling the timeframes of narrative sections, Kay’s story switches between past and present on a dime, the flow more like a matrix than a river. One moment a character is experiencing the present, and the next they are reflecting/reliving the past. Or, from another angle, a sub-plot is introduced, then stopped, followed by a trip back in time or to another character, then resumption of the sub-plot. There are also numerous transitions between character viewpoints. Blaise’s perspective may suddenly give way to another character in the scene, or in another place entirely. Topping all of this off, Kay switches tenses frequently. The present tense may often introducing sections, but at some point later the reader finds themselves once again in the familiar past tense narrative of storytelling—the future tense even used at times.
All of these transitions, switches, reversions, and circumlocutory methods of storytelling work individually, but when combined do not make a story that reads smoothly. Others may not be bothered by such an approach, but for me, the randomness of it all detracted from readability. This becomes especially relevant when understanding the story is a fairy tale, not an art piece. Looking at individual sentences one sees the typically beautiful style of Kay. However, fluidity in these sentences is lacking when encountering the jumble they become. Thus, readers should be ready to repeatedly shift their mindset when reading A Song for Arbonne, the story unraveling in fits and starts.
Another potential complaint of the novel is its cheap literary devices. Admittedly Kay uses such tricks in his other books, but in A Song for Arbonne they are often low. Every few pages feature a line such as: “And it was to be the day Blaise’s life changed forever...”, or, “She was not to know the terrible deeds that would befall her company entering the tavern with them that evening...”. There are also innumerable segments colored in the deepest, darkest purple. “After, she will remember that moment forever, the sun high, the breeze stirring…” and so on. If you grow easily nauseated reading such passages, avoid the book. Further cheap literary tricks include sensationalism: check the following introduction of the villain:
“Ademar, king of Gorhaut, slowly turns away from the diverting if extremely messy struggle taking place in front of the throne between the carefully maimed hound and the three cats that have been set upon it. Not even acknowledging the half-clothed woman kneeling on the stone floor in front of him with his sex in her mouth, he looks narrowly over at the man who has just spoken…”
Such passages will garner an “adult” label for the book, but everyone can see “juvenile sensationalism” is a far better description.
In the end, A Song for Arbonne feels like an overwrought theater production where plausibility is set aside in favor of purple sentimentality and cheap entertainment. The sudden and inexplicable appearance of rescuers, the random and easy kidnapping of a man who previously killed six with only a bow, the melodrama of the deaths, etc. all add up to an adult fairy tale that feels overly contrived, that is, compared to the natural feeling of tragedy that pervades The Lions of Al-Rassan. And the experimentation with narrative style doesn’t help. Jumping between characters, timeframes, tenses, and narrative viewpoints fails to give the story any additional impact, that is, if it had been written in a more linear or tributary style. All this being said, the novel is still very much a typical Kay fantasy. Heroism and femininity the themes du jour, he evokes a sense of yearning for the past that few other writers are able to. If you love his other works, its quite possible you will also like A Song for Arbonne.