Recently Calah was gushing about a book I’d sent her. She says, “it is the best book I’ve ever read.” It’s one of my favorites too. In fact, after she’d sent me a note to let me know it had arrived and to tell me that she already loved it from the first page, I found myself hunting it down and opening it up just to re-read that first scene. And then I was hooked, as I always am. I had to re-read the whole book. And while I was doing so I fell in love all over again. And while I was in the middle of the novel, I realized that I’ve never properly written about it here on my blog, in fact I’ve mentioned Kay, my favorite fantasy novelist after Tolkien, only in passing. So this blog entry is an attempt to remedy both of those slights. I will discuss Tigana but also Guy Gavriel Kay and his other works.
I can’t remember how I first came to read the novel. Did someone recommend it to me? Did I stumble across it at Half Price Books? The lack of clarity on that point niggles and this is very much a novel about memory so my haziness in this instance bugs me more than with other books. In any case, I’m pretty sure the first time I read it was my senior year of college. Somehow I associate the book with my bedroom in that apartment and with long days spent reading Tigana when I should probably have been reading books for the classes I was taking, studying, or writing papers. I must have re-read it quite a few times in the intervening decade and a half. Every time the same passages get me and I end up in tears.
Tigana is high fantasy, set in a world with two moons and magic, but it is often categorized as historical fantasy because the inspiration for the novel’s Peninsula of the Palm with its vineyards and olive groves and wandering troubadours is Renaissance Italy. The names of the characters and places are Italianate and so is the culture of the various warring provinces. As the novel opens the Peninsula has been divided up by two invading tyrants, Alberico of Barbadior and Brandin of Ygrath, both sorcerers. The novel has a huge cast of characters; but follows two main plot lines: that of Devin d’Asoli a young singer with a wandering troupe of musicians, and Dianora, a concubine in Brandin’s harem, taken as tribute from the captive provinces.
Dionora’s story has very strong echoes of the Biblical story of Esther. Having seen that, I wasn’t at all surprised to later learn about Kay’s Jewish identity.
The novel is a great fast-moving fantasy adventure and yet also tackles several quite ambitious themes, including the role of memory and history, especially in a people who are oppressed, the power of names, the instability of sexuality when people are not free, and the evils done by good men.
Tigana is one of the only books I’ve purchased copies of solely for the purpose of giving them away to other people. I’ve been known to say, “Here. Take this. I’ll get another copy.” (So why haven’t I written about it before on my blog?)
Guy Gavriel Kay
I really do think Kay is one of the best fantasy novelists ever, second only to Tolkien. And though Tolkien is often held up as the benchmark for fantasy writing, the comparison of Kay with Tolkien is not a casual one. When Kay was a university student in Canada he was invited by Christopher Tolkien to help edit the Silmarillion. Kay moved to England and did just that. Kay refuses to say much on the topic, so it’s rather mysterious and intriguing. I can’t help but think that having such hands on experience with the raw materials of a master like Tolkien provided an incomparable apprenticeship. Kay’s first novels, the Finovar Tapsetry trilogy, have many, many nods to Tolkien and in some aspects are quite derivative: there is a Dark Lord, there are dwarfs and a race that strongly resembles elves, there are wizards and there is a band of scrappy heroes whose task it is to save the world from the tyranny of evil. But at the same time it is a very original work and bears the hallmarks of Kay’s, later, more mature work.
Kay and Religion
Many fantasy novelists ignore religion altogether or if they deal with it at all use it as mere window dressing. In his fantasy worlds Kay creates religions that seem to be more than mere background color. He seems to be doing something very interesting that I’m not always able to quite put my finger on. His religions are ostensibly pagan with pantheons of many gods, (as in Tigana, the Fionavar Tapsetry and Song for Arbonne) or gods who are identified with celestial bodies (such as the gods of the sun, moons, and stars worshiped in The Lions of Al Rassan and the Sarantine Mosaic) and yet in all of the faiths he creates there are elements that are much closer to the three monotheistic religions of the West: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—this is more explicit in Lions and the Sarantine diptych; but I would argue is true of Tigana and Arbonne as well. I think Kay uses his analog religions just as he uses his analog histories to explore aspects of our faiths and our history that would be much trickier to navigate in strict historical fiction, which is very much obliged not only to get the details right but also to try to capture a specific culture in a specific time and place if it is to be worthwhile at all. Kay’s fantasy gives him freedom to explore various themes in a way historical fiction cannot. In some ways it reminds me very much of what C.S. Lewis is doing in Till We Have Faces, using pagan myth in an explicitly Christian way. And yet Kay’s roots are Jewish and so his approach is different than that of either Lewis or Tolkien.
In Tigana, I’m fascinated by the monasticism of the clergy, by the elements of sacrifice, and by the way religion complicates politics. The gods don’t intervene directly in the action of the novel, but religion is much more than the window dressing it is in most fantasy novels, when they deal with it at all.
Kay’s Other Novels
Tigana is my favorite; but I really love just about everything Kay has written.
1. The Fionavar Tapestry is Kay’s first published work. A trilogy comprised of The Summer Tree , The Wandering Fire , and The Darkest Road . The books follow a group of five students at the university of Toronto who find themselves transported to another world, Fionavar, which is the first world of all the worlds. There they are caught up in the quest to save the world from a Dark Lord. It sounds rather like a blend of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, and it has that sort of feeling too. Fionavar is a magical world with mages and it’s equivalent of elves (the lios alfar) and dwarves. It does sometimes feel a little like a derivative of Middle Earth.The five protagonists, while not siblings, certainly have a similar experience to that of the Pevensie children and others who are swept into the drama of Narnia, where they are expected to interfere in local politics, in fact, to help fight to save the world. It also has it’s own pantheon of gods and goddesses who are not merely window dressing but who take an active role in the unfolding drama. At the same time, none of these gods is the creator of the world. Instead that role is played by the Weaver, a much more distant and unknowable figure who has given free will to gods and to men while binding them to certain laws.
While The Fionavar Tapestry definitely has some of the roughness of a first novel, especially in the first chapters of The Summer Tree even in this early work you see many of Kay’s hallmarks and has much that is not derivative but quite fresh and worth reading. Whenever I begin to re-read I cringe a bit at the beginning and wonder if it’s going to be worth it; but soon I am so enmeshed in the story and so in love with the characters, the world, the story, that I can forgive those early missteps and by the end wonder why I ever doubted. Kay tackles heavy themes such as free will, sacrifice, forgiveness, the price of power; and he does it well. Kay is also not afraid to make tough choices and to kill off his characters. Also, his strong female characters definitely take a much larger role than the women in Tolkien.
Many of Kay’s later novels pay tribute to the idea of Fionavar as the first of all worlds, a sort of Platonic world whose events and people cast shadows on all the other worlds. They refer to Fionavar in passing as a mythical realm that may or may not be real, a paradise lost.
2. A Song for Arbonne is the book I find least memorable. It isn’t as strong as Tigana, but it does have its own charms. Like Tigana, Arbonne is a historical fantasy, set in a magical world that strongly resembles medieval Provence, a world of jongleurs and courtly love and with echoes of the crusade against the Albegensian heresy. As in Fionavar and Tigana, here Kay creates his own religion, a pagan pantheon of deities.
3. The Lions of al-Rassan is a historical fantasy set in a world with two moons that bears a fair resemblance to the Iberian Peninsula during the time of the Reconquista. It’s a sort of retelling of the story of El Cid. Rather than dealing with the competing theologies of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, however, Kay creates analogue religions to the big three monotheistic faiths: the Asharites are a desert people who worship the stars, clearly the Moors; the Jaddites worship the sun and are fighting to drive the Asharites out of the land, clearly Christians; the Kindath worship the moons and are the equivalent of the Jews, marginalized by both Asharites and Jaddites. This is very much a book about love and divided loyalties. I cry buckets every time I read it. I just love all the major characters, I love the story and the setting. And no matter how many times I read it, the ending takes my breath away. There isn’t a lot of magic in this world, a little bit of the supernatural but mainly what the setting does is allow Kay to explore historical themes without having to worry about the historical details. Because his characters aren’t precisely Christians, Jews, and Muslims, Kay has leeway in how he presents the conflicts between the faiths. The theology isn’t exact at all; but his focus is more on how faith intersects with culture and the conflicts it creates. What he really gets at is the human tragedy that ensues when faith is used as a pretext for wars and oppression, what happens when it gets mixed up with politics.
4. The Sarantine Mosaic is a pair of books, Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors. The inspiration is the poem “Sailing to Byzantium” by W.B. Yeats. The novels are set in the same, unnamed world at The Lions of al Rassan but in a different setting. The story is told primarily from the point of view of Crispin, a mosaicist of the western town of Varena, analogue of Ravenna, the capital of the troubled western kingdom of Batiara. He is summoned to the eastern capital Sarantium to create a mosaic for the emperor Valerius, analogue of Justinian I. Crispin finds himself caught up in the byzantine politics of the capital. The major conflict is between east and west, but there are also the internal conflicts, including the theological battle with the equivalent of the iconoclasts. I don’t think I can write a summary that does this work justice. It’s beautiful, heartbreaking, a story of love and loss and politics and power and the place of art in a world that is constantly threatened by darkness. It picks up on Yeats’ themes and explores them in a masterful way. Truly top notch fantasy.
5. The Last Light of the Sun the third of Kay’s fantasy novels set in the world of al-Rassan and Sarantium, this novel takes place during the equivalent of the Viking invasion of the Saxon England of Alfred the Great. Just as the other two books, this one is very concerned with the clashes of culture and religion and the passing of an era, the awareness people have of the disappearance of a particular way of life.The fantasy elements feel much more prominent with the inclusion of fairy folk. Beautiful stories of the relationships between fathers and sons and, as usual with Kay, more heartbreak than I think I can bear. I have a particular love for this book because I remember exactly when and where I read it for the first time.
6. Ysabel is perhaps my least favorite of Kay’s novels. I wrote a bit about Ysabel here when I first read it. Part of the problem I have may be that this is really a young adult novel, a coming of age story. It returns in a way to Kay’s first works. It’s more of an urban fantasy, set in contemporary Provence. The protagonist is a young American (Canadian?) boy in Provence with his father, a famous photographer. Instead of being transported to a magical world as the characters in The Fionavar Tapestry, he finds that the other world comes to him. There is a link to the Fionavar books, there is a lot about the history of Provence, especially the conflict between the conquering Romans and the native Celts. Something about it just doesn’t work for me. It lacks the depth and resonance of Kay’s other works. And yet it has been one of his most successful novels.
7. Under Heaven, Kay’s latest novel takes his historical fantasy in a totally new direction. This one is set in a fantasy equivalent of 8th century Tang dynasty China. It returned to the sort of complex story and characters that I love in Kay’s other novels, divided loyalties, love and betrayal, a world passing away and the men and women who are helpless to stop the changes they see happening as their world crumbles, meditations on the place of art and culture in a world at war, a culture that is passing away. I can’t wait to read the sequel, River of Stars which is going to be published in April of next year. It also takes place in China, but I believe several hundred years after Under Heaven.