(HarperCollins 2011, originally published 1992)
Like most of Kay’s work, A Song for Arbonne is what I’d call ‘historical fantasy’ – taking history of our world and transplanting it into an invented world like ours, but different. This book takes the culture of the mediaeval French Courts of Love and its traditions, and sets them against a background of six countries. Arbonne is the closest analogue to southern France, and is “woman-ruled”: the action of the novel takes place during a few months where the widowed Signe de Barbentain is Countess of Arbonne and its ruler. To the north of Arbonne is Gorhaut, which is climatically and religiously opposed to Arbonne – they regard the worship of the goddess Rian, alongside the god Corannos in the south as heretical and even blasphemous – and women are regarded as property, their conduct severely circumscribed. To the west of Arbonne is Arimonda; to the west and north of Gorhaut is Valensa; to the east of Gorhaut and north-east of Arbonne is Götzland; and to the east of Arbonne and south of Götzland are the city states of Portezza.
After a prologue in which we meet Aelis, daughter of the Count and Countess of Arbonne, married to Urte de Miraval, but deeply and passionately in love with the younger son of the Duke of Talair, Bertran, we skip forward some twenty years. The main protagonist of the book is Blaise, a mercenary coran (a soldier dedicated to the god Corannos) from Gorhaut currently working for the lord of Baude in the south of Arbonne. Because Blaise has only recently left Gorhaut, he sees Arbonne through a stranger’s eyes, and though at first he thinks it an odd place, very different to his homeland, he – and the reader – comes to know and love the place and its people. Initially, he does not understand and despises the tradition of courtly love sung by the troubadours (the composers) and the joglars (the minstrels), and can’t see why having the beauties of one’s wife sung by a troubadour adds to a lord’s status, nor why the troubadours are expected to exalt only married women.
Although Blaise appears to be only a coran for hire and former assassin, it becomes apparent that he is more important than he’d like: he’s the younger son of Galbert de Garsenc, chief counsellor of the young king, Ademar, of Gorhaut. He’s hired by Bertran, Duke of Talair, as a coran, and almost immediately incurs the emnity of the Duke of Miraval (who has been constantly feuding with Bertran since the death of Aelis) by killing six of his corans after they ambush him on the road. The association with Bertran leads to an encounter in the port city of Tavernel at Carnival time with the Queen of the Court of Love, Ariane de Carenzu, and several troubadours and joglars, including Lisseut (a rare woman joglar), and an assassination attempt by Blaise’s friend Rudel Correze of Portezza.
As well as the scenes set in Arbonne, Kay also shows us the life of the court in Gorhaut: the influence Galbert has over the king, as well as over his elder son, Ranald; the steadfast strength and dignity of Ranald’s pregnant wife Rosala; and the plans they have for Arbonne. After a Gorhaut victory two years previously at the battle of Iersen Bridge, in which the previous king, Duergar, was killed, a large territory in the north of Gorhaut has been ceded to Valensa in return for much money: as a result, Galbert and Ademar want to increase their holdings to the south by invading Arbonne. Needless to say, the Arbonnais are not happy about the idea.
This is a grand, sweeping story, with many memorable and well-drawn characters: Blaise, in particular, grows and changes through his journey, but most of the other characters also change in realistic ways. The contrasts between Gorhaut and Arbonne are neatly drawn (though perhaps there is insufficient detail given to see why Blaise loves his country so much – it’s portrayed as something of a bleak place, and its treatment of women is repressive), and Galbert is a scary adversary, simply because of his implacable religious fundamentalism – to him, the worshippers of Rian, and Rian’s priestesses in particular, are abominations which should be burned from the earth – and his ruthlessness.
Like most of Kay’s books, the women are allowed to be intelligent, and have a modicum of power – at least in Arbonne – whether through themselves, as Signe does, or through the power of Rian, as does the High Priestess, Beatriz. I particularly liked Ariane, who although she is married to Thierry (who actually prefers men, but who is portrayed as being highly competent and honourable), approaches life and love on her own terms, and is clever and honourable. Lisseut was an interesting character, but I felt she was shoe-horned into the narrative at times, particularly towards the end (rather as if Kay couldn’t find the right place for this character he liked, or as if he’d changed his mind about what was to happen to her).
The customs and traditions of Arbonne and its neighbours are well-written, with the information coming naturally in the text and gradually: for example, Kay reveals who Blaise is gradually before it’s confirmed. The relationships between the characters are realistic and complex, and one gets a sense of the history between them.
I’m not sure what to make of the very end of the book, since it seems the course of action Kay sees as bound to happen shouldn’t (but I can’t explain why it bothers me or I’ll spoil the story). However, the rest of the story unfolds slowly and inevitably, and gives great pleasure to read – I started reading at lunchtime and couldn’t stop until I’d finished, some seven hours later. I’m sure I’ll re-read this, too.