Aug 6 2010 4:49pm

Provencal Fantasy: Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne

I hadn’t read A Song For Arbonne for so long that I’d almost forgotten the story, and that’s why I took it with me to re-read this summer. I remembered the setting perfectly well—this is a fantasy version of medieval Provence, with fields of lavender and the Court of Love and  troubadours. The characters, however, and the plot, had vanished from my mind in the ten years or so since I last read it, except for a few set-piece moments, of the kind Kay does so well.

Kay’s career as a fantasy writer has gone on an odd trajectory, beginning with Tolkien-style secondary world fantasy (The Fionavar Tapestry) and then swinging away deeper and deeper into history. Tigana and A Song for Arbonne are set in secondary worlds that resemble their historical counterparts, from The Lions of Al-Rassan onwards his books are telling the stories of the actual historical people and places he is abstracting. So what we have here is a world closely based on the real Provence, and original characters and plot. This is also a trajectory away from magic—Fionavar is full of magic, Tigana has somewhat less, Arbonne has less again, and The Lions of Al-Rassan has nothing but an accurate prophecy.

The world is portrayed beautifully, in effective, evocative and memorable detail. I think this is the problem with the book—the world is more memorable and somehow denser than the characters, who are in comparison gossamer. As for the plot, it’s fairly standard for fantasy—there’s a mercenary who happens to be a potential heir to the threatening neighbour kingdom, there’s a scheming father, there are two lords at odds over a long-ago love affair but who need to work together to save the kingdom. There’s a missing heir, there are islands full of prophetic priestesses, there are too many people who have secrets—and it’s all mannered and distanced and held at arm’s length. It’s not that it’s a bad book. It’s a very good book, it’s just that it can’t hold its own weight—the world and the writing and the beautiful set-pieces are enough to carry me along, but there rest of it is too slight, too conventional, and too distanced to keep its end up. It’s like a tapestry containing jewels heavy enough to tear through the fabric.

Maybe I was just in the wrong mood for it. I know I’ve enjoyed reading it before. But I kept wanting to enjoy it and finding myself being distracted by thinking about it. I’m actually a very bad reviewer, which is another reason I don’t review much. I have no detachment. I get sucked into a book and seduced by it while I’m reading it. Any analysis happens after the fact. These posts (which are not really reviews, just burbling about books) get written after I’ve finished the book and had time to think about what I think about it. While I’m reading, usually, I am the book, there’s no line between the book and me. With A Song For Arbonne, this time, that trance state never happened—I was always enjoying it well enough, skimming along the surface, but it never grabbed hold of me and sucked me under. I kept thinking this was because I wasn’t giving it enough time—I started it when I was in Britain, and busy, and without long chunks of time to read. But I read the second half of it on the plane home, without any interruption and it still didn’t happen.

After this book, Kay moved more towards writing characters and plots that were also historical. After this reading I wonder if he might have done that because he wanted them to have the same weight as the backgrounds? Also after this he tended to write about people doing things for human reasons, some of them petty, but none of them evil in the fantasy sense of the word. I wonder if these kinds of stories and characters had come to feel as if they weren’t enough? 

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. AlecAustin
So I had a similar response to A Song for Arbonne, in that I really liked both Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan and the later historical books, but Song left me kind of... cold. Part of it is definitely the characters, and I feel that's because there are threads of A Song for Arbonne's characterization and plot motivation that are heavy-handed and lacking in compassion in ways that both Tigana and Lions (and the following books) were not.

In Tigana, you know why the protagonists are doing why they're doing, but you can also sympathize with Brandin, because you understand his motivations. Alberico is a bit of a straw villain, but I didn't find him utterly repugnant like I found many of the antagonists in Song. In Lions, well, you've got heroism and sacrifice and characters who it's easy to identify with on both sides of the battle lines. I found the same thing to be true of the Sarantium books (Okay, Pertennius/Procopius is a total ass), and Last Light of the Sun, and even Under Heaven. A Song for Arbonne has its thumb on the scales in ways that the other books I've mentioned don't, and I think that's a large part of why I don't think as much of it as the rest of Kay's non-Fionavar related work.
2. milamberrex
I loved both Fionavar & Tigana but have not read anymore of his work since Arbonne. It wasn't that it was bad, it just wasn't a compelling read.
Sydo Zandstra
3. Fiddler

I found A Song for Arbonne a decent read, but I wouldn't do a reread soon.

The duology consisting of Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, however, do show up regularly on my reread list.

Have you read those?
Melissa Shumake
4. cherie_2137
I love all of Kay's books that I have read so far, and I've read A Song for Arbonne several times, but my favorite by far is The Lions of Al-Rassan. I agree that Arbonne is really more of a proto-typical fantasy story, and I do enjoy it as such. But every single time I read Lions, I cry for a good half hour because the people and motivations and emotions are so real.
Phoenix Falls
5. PhoenixFalls
OK, good, so Kay is better than this novel shows. This is the only one that I've read, and so when everybody starts shouting from the rooftops that he's one of the best fantasy authors out there my eyes usually glaze over.

I will give him another chance then. :)
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Fiddler: Yes. Short version: I really like them.
7. Christopher Byler
Also after this he tended to write about people doing things for human reasons, some of them petty, but none of them evil in the fantasy sense of the word.

Maybe it's been too long since I reread _Song_, but I thought the main villain's motivations were religious intolerance, misogyny, and ambition. Seemed pretty human to me. Evil, yes, but in the way some humans are evil, not in the Sauron sense.

I thought it was also somewhat based on the Albigensian Crusade (although with extensive alterations).
8. Foxessa
My problem with Arbonne is that scene so early in the book of the Bad Ruler meeting with embassies while getting sucked off in their presence by his slave girls. I thought, O dear Robert Graves and I Claudius, what hath thou wrought? How many bad historicals have I read with this scene included?

The other problem was that the author couldn't find a good fantasy plot to carry the splendor that was the historicfal Provence beyond what it authentically was.

I felt the same way about Lions. The actualities of the times and places of the taifa kingdoms are their own magnificence, that they own. Nothing he did made it more wonderful, but rather, less, for less coherent.

OTOH, perhaps it's difficult for me, the more I really know about periods and locations and the principal agency figures of those eras and places to let my suspension of disbelief take over?

Love, c.
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
Foxessa -- maybe, and certainly neither the Albigensian crusade nor the Reconquista are my period. But I know as much about Justinian as anyone, and I loved what he was doing in the Sarantine books -- the more I saw exactly what he was doing, the more I loved it.
Elio García
11. Egarcia
Knowledge of the historical periods in question -- and by coincidence, I know a fair bit about the Albigensian Crusade, the Reconquista, and Justinian's Byzantium -- has ever been an impediment to enjoying these. Yet I know others who say it is a problem for them, so obviously, mileage does vary.

I think in Lions, Kay chose to crunch the whole of the Reconquista into a very short timespan, to magnify the impact of it -- a sudden sea-change in the balance of power in the world, rather than hundreds of years of abortive, petty squabbles, territory going back and forth, and a long, slow gradual decline of al-Andalus -- and I think while geopolitically it doesn't stand up to a huge amount of scrutiny, that's not really the point of the exercise.

But... I digress. A Song for Arbonne is the only novel by Kay where I was disappointed after reading it. I don't quite recall why, but I was not taken with it in my first reading. So I fairly promptly read it again -- because by this point in time, after having been introduced to the Fionavar Tapestry and Tigana, I was a massive fan -- and found I liked it much better than I initially thought I did. Strange, isn't it? I think, knowing the story the first time through, I was able to the strands of the themes of the story (and themes are a major part of what Kay is all about -- no simple plot-driven adventure from him) more clearly, picking up things I missed the first time through.

Was it his failure, or mine? I'm not sure. I can never unread that book (short of self-inflicted amnesia) and try it fresh for the first time, with the addition of 15 years of greater experience as a reader (and as a reader of Kay). But in any case, that was my own history with the novel. I've re-read it several times since, I think, as I've re-read basically everything of Kay's, and my admiration for him as a writer only grows.

(One quibble about the post, though: magic becomes rather more prominent in the books after The Lions of Al-Rassan, if not so prominent as the traditional wizards-and-spells of Fionavar or Tigana.)
12. xi'an101
A Song for Arbonne has always been one of my favourite fantasy books... Maybe because it is so rare to see a fantasy book focussing on Courts d'Amor and chevaleresque love codes. Maybe because the setting is heavily inspired from Occitany. Anyway, I have read it many times since then.
Tony Zbaraschuk
13. tonyz
The thing with Song is that the Bad Guys are just really bad with not much apparent reason. Every one of Kay's other books is better than that at depicting all sides, even if they are evil.
14. Jettoki
Tigana was gripping, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. For whatever reason, it was less than the sum of its parts. I think a lot of what seemed to have emotional weight while I was reading ended up cheapened by the plot's many contrivances. The ending wasn't terrible on its own, but when I realized that the characters had all been guided toward that one moment for 300+ pages, it was like looking behind the stage in a puppet show.
Sydo Zandstra
15. Fiddler
@ bluejo:

I studied history, and some classes I took were about Byzantium. I did read Procopius; he's somewhere in my book cases... :D

Good review; thanks for linking. :)
Andrew Mason
16. AnotherAndrew
Regarding the different levels of magic, it's perhaps worth mentioning that Kay sees his stories as happening in a multiverse. Presumably worlds are more or less magical depending how close they are to Fionavar/Finavir/Fionvarre.
Sydo Zandstra
17. Fiddler

That's a nice argument. But a really thin one.

We know he is really drawing from European Medieval History, adding some magic at times.

Not that it's a bad thing. His writing skills are ok, so he is a good read.

But he isn't doing a grand opus where everything fits together as Stephen King tried with his Dark Tower series...
a a-p
18. lostinshadow
couldn't even get through 50 pages of this book even though I normally enjoy Kay.


his two books on Byzantium are hauntingly well written. I really enjoyed them, but haven't had a chance to reread since I never got my copies back after I lent them to someone.

Still, I prefer his more magic intensive novels... especially Fionavar Tapestry.
19. peachy
@15 : I rarely throw books across the room... but Procopius left a nice Penguin Classics-shaped dent in my wall. :)
Sydo Zandstra
20. Fiddler

Blame his editor and book company :p ;)
Mouldy Squid
21. Mouldy_Squid
Wow, I must be in the minority. I find that Song. . . is my favourite of all of Kay's pseudo-historical fantasies. I will admit bias, though; one of the major foci of my Literature BA was the Courts d'Amor period. I also spent an entire semester studying the Albigensian Crusade. Song. . . captured not only the history of these periods but the ephemeral essence of them; something that Kay is very good at.

However, in my opinion, his move towards more "realistic" historical fantasy was a gradual lessening of his grasp of the "feel" of the period. Sounds strange, I know, but I can't help feeling that the more specific his detailing of actual history (such as Lions. . .) became, the less numinous the novels were. It is as if he got bogged down trying to make them more historically "weighty". His books became more Sharon Kay Penmen like and less fantasy. A loss, in my opinion. If I want to read historical fiction, I'll read historical fiction. I am not claiming that you need magic on every page in fantasy (some of the best modern fantasy has little to no magic in), but if the quintessence of fantasy is lessened in favour of historical "weight", why write it as fantasy at all?

A contrarian view obviously. I still read everything Kay publishes, and I think that Lions. . . remains his most technically accomplished novel. There is just something about Song. . . that strikes a cord that he has not struck since.
22. Eugene R.
Well, it is not a minority of one, since I, too, like Song more than Tigana or Lions, and principally for the evocation of the magic of the Provencal-esque setting. It is interesting to compare Arbonne with the "real" Provence that appears in Ysabel, which is set in contemporary times and harkens back to a darker, bloodier past, that of the Roman conquest and occupation. I can certainly see a much stronger emphasis on character and motive in Ysabel, but I still fall under the spell of Arbonne faster.
Darren James
23. b8amack
Surprised at this review, honestly. A Song for Arbonne is my absolutely favourite of Kay's novels. But then again I think Walton hit on the point of the novel as an aside.

When she says:
"The world is portrayed beautifully, in effective, evocative and
memorable detail. I think this is the problem with the book—the world is
more memorable and somehow denser than the characters, who are in
comparison gossamer"

I was like... Yes. Exactly. I believe with Arbonne Kay was attempting to create a sublime experience. That's not a fault of the novel, though. It's the whole point. To experience Arbonne.
24. Nelda Straka
I just have a question regarding the maps depicted in the Song---
we have just visited the provence and are trying to visualize the actual places. Are they all fictitious or do they reflect the old spelling in the Middle Ages. Cannot find any resemblance to now existing places, so the maps must also be part of the phantasy. Can somebody enlighten me?

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