A Song For Arbonne is a lyrical portrayal of one tumultuous year in Arbonne, as its peace-loving people — aristocracy, mercenaries, troubadours, pries...moreA Song For Arbonne is a lyrical portrayal of one tumultuous year in Arbonne, as its peace-loving people — aristocracy, mercenaries, troubadours, priests and priestesses — deal with the threat of invasion from their war-hungry neighbors to the north.
Much to my astonishment, some folks don’t enjoy the works of Guy Kay as much as I do. That said, the overall ratings for A Song For Arbonne is well above four, which puts it in pretty rarified territory. Even the negative reviews of Kay usually agree that the characters are well developed, that the world is richly and lovingly detailed, and that the prose is lyrical. The negative consensus seems to be that not enough action drives the story, though.
I can understand that. There’s a lot of talking, and a lot of introspection. The characters are trying to understand the motivations of others, so it is pretty psychological. That makes this book (and all of Kay’s that I’ve read so far) quite unusual in the universe of speculative fiction.
There’s also a subset that dislike Kay’s portrayal of sex. It is definitely present here, although not too much in my opinion. Some of what is portrayed is somewhat kinky, too. Well, I guess to most of y’all it would be very kinky, but I’m a San Franciscan. But we’re talking maybe two or three scenes out of the five hundred pages. Trivial compared to George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, for example.
In this standalone book, Kay actually has quite a bit in common with Martin’s mega opus. Both deal with dynastic wars, and the suspicious and manipulative psychology that entails. Magic plays a relatively minor background role — this is actually historical fantasy, and far from swords-and-sorcery stuff (more on that below). The “evil” characters aren’t Sauron/Voldemort analogs, imbued with the myth of pure evil, but mere humans with the same banal incentives and passions we all share.
It is worthwhile to recall Kay’s pedigree as an author, since that also illuminates important aspects of his work. While studying philosophy in college, he was asked to help family friends — the Tolkiens — compile and edit The Silmarillion. After moving to Oxford for that project, he met Dorothy Dunnett, author of epic historical fiction set in the sixteenth century.
Kay’s trajectory as an author bridges those two influences, starting with a fairly ahistorical fantasy (The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, which nevertheless draws on myths and legends), but soon, with Tigana, shifting to historical fantasy. Tigana is set in an other-world analog of medieval Italy. A Song For Arbonne is set in an other-world analog of medieval Languedoc and Provence. His later “analogs” have moved closer to our world’s history.
Knowing that there is some real history behind A Song For Arbonne might be of interest. The Languedoc/Provence portion of France was, in the middle ages, independent of Rome, and developed a distinctive culture. One important aspect was the evolution of courtly love, which led to notions of chivalry that are now deeply embedded in western culture, history and mythology, as well as the troubadours that propagated and memorialized this. This is transferred into A Song For Arbonne without significant modification.
The other important development in Languedoc/Provence was a divergent theology. The Cathar Heresy isn’t replicated directly. Cathar beliefs invoked a dual god — a good God of the spiritual realm, and an evil God (Satan) who created and ruled the material world. But Kay did create an analogous heretical dualism, which is central to the action. The bellicose north worships only the masculine god Corannos, whereas Arbonne elevates the feminine Rian to be his peer. The predictable result is a misogynistic religious crusade to cleanse the south of this heresy — what in our history was the Albigensian Crusade. Even if you don’t want to remember any of the foregoing, it is interesting to note that this is possibly the first invocation of the bumpersticker “Kill them all and let God sort them out”: Arnaud Amalric, the papal legate and inquisitor was asked how to tell the good Catholics from the evil Cathars, and he responded “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt emus” (“Kill them all. For the Lord knoweth them that are His.”)
But, honestly, these parallels aren’t really brought up in the book. That Eleanor of Aquitaine was probably the role model for Signe de Barbentain might mean something to aficionados of medieval history, but not most of us. (Trying to decode the parallels of other characters, events, and locales might be a distraction or a further pleasure, of course.)
Perhaps A Song For Arbonne is too lyrical and meandering for some, but that is their loss. For most of us, this is a gorgeous tale.(less)
This is the first of a trilogy in a magnificent telling of the Arthurian legend. Yeah, that one: Arthur, Merlin, Uther Pendragon, Guinevere, Morgan, M...moreThis is the first of a trilogy in a magnificent telling of the Arthurian legend. Yeah, that one: Arthur, Merlin, Uther Pendragon, Guinevere, Morgan, Mordred, Lancelot, Galahad — the whole cast, as far as I know (well, Morgause appears to be missing).
I haven’t read any of the others Arthurian books, so I can’t comment on any linkages between this and the agglomeration of other tellings. My knowledge of this history/legend/mythos comes mostly from what I’ve picked up here and there, with a heavy dose of Monty Python, Camelot (the musical) and fond-if-vague recollections of the dark 1981 movie, Excalibur.
Bernard Cornwell relies on the point that what is “known” about Arthur is microscopic compared to the stories that have been told, and that gives him the leeway to tweak the legend in ways that aren’t available to most “historical” fiction. In other words, there is so much fiction already in the mixture that he can transpose the historical portion to where he thinks he will have the most fun. In his afterword, he admits that his choices are “capricious at best and fortified by the certainty that no real answer exists”. In the end, he locates his story in the part of Britain he loves best.
The Wikipedia page on King Arthur tells us he was possibly a real human being around the early sixth century. This is long after the first Christian missionaries came to Wales and maybe after druidism was largely eliminated. But in Cornwell’s tale, druids play an important role, which distinguishes this from the heavily Christianized tales that dominate the most popular tellings of Arthur (e.g., the Holy Grail — although the Grail does make an appearance, sort of).
Many others parts of the story are also shifted a bit: the major characters don’t have the same relationships to one another — for example, Galahad is Lancelot’s illegitimate half-brother, not his illegitimate son. Mordred isn’t Arthur’s son, but nephew (and an infant in this first volume).
The very first portion — fifty, maybe sixty pages? — is a little slow. Derfel Cadarn, the narrator is an old monk, writing this history. (He is based on the historical Saint Derfel Gadarn; the book is written in the first person from his perspective). As his tale begins, he is a young man of Saxon ancestry who had been adopted as an orphan by Merlin. Merlin is absent, and no one knows where he is, when he might return, or even if he is alive. The High King, Uther Pendragon, has sent his heir and grandson, Mordred, to Merlin’s camp at Ynys Wydryn.
The barrage of Welsh (or Cornish, I’m not completely sure) words and names can be pretty overwhelming, and several times I was tempted to abandon the book and move on to something else. But eventually the situation becomes clear, and some action kicks in, and the for the rest of the book there is no question that we’re in the hands of a master storyteller.
As the chapters go by, more of the expected Arthurian characters are added to the mix. Cornwell does an excellent job at making Arthur a complex character (Merlin remains mostly an enigma), torn between his belief that he can forge Britain into a unified people, able to resist the despised Saxons, and his passions; chief among them, the femme fatale, Guinevere. The politics certainly seems accurate. Perhaps the real draw is the military aspect: Cornwell gives us a real feel for what spear-and-shield fighting was about. Maintaining the shield wall was paramount; as long as it stood your side would probably get by with few casualties, but woe to those facing the melee after it collapsed, especially if they had been flanked.
I suspect someone could spend many hours tracking Cornwell’s usage of actual historical names and places. For example, the final battle in this book is at “Lugg Vale”, which was actually the site of a very similar fight in the early fifteenth century, the Battle of Bryn Glas. Thus, the “historical” half of “historical fiction” is well rooted.
Since I’ve only read this first book in the trilogy, I can’t endorse the whole series, although I certainly plan on continuing into the next volume, and I can recommend The Winter King to anyone who enjoys a rousing good story. (less)
Nice little spy novel. Intelligent enough to satisfy, but not enough to win any real awards. Was made into a good movie, way back when, which I'm pret...moreNice little spy novel. Intelligent enough to satisfy, but not enough to win any real awards. Was made into a good movie, way back when, which I'm pretty sure I saw and enjoyed. If you like espionage and/or historical fiction, read it.(less)
I have a big problem with many time-travel books. It can be a bit of a culture shock just heading to another country in our o...moreMeh. Couldn't finish it.
I have a big problem with many time-travel books. It can be a bit of a culture shock just heading to another country in our own time, and as has been said before, the past is a very foreign country. They really did things differently there. But more to the point, they thought and behaved in ways that a sociologist could spend an entire career unravelling. Well, okay, it depends on how long ago and how far away, but you get the point.
The overwhelming convention is that the folks that go on these time traveling expeditions seem to have an astonishing array of skills that happen to be quite useful. Understandable if these are trained professionals (viz.), but it can be disconcerting when, for example, an accidental time traveler fortuitously happens to be an master at swordplay or a nurse as well as an expert on the medicinal uses of plants.
I'm sure this time-travel/romance is better than most of its rivals (I wasn't even aware this was a popular sub-subgenre), but that wasn't enough to counter my cynicism.
I'd encourage anyone who wants a nice historically-detailed romp in Scotland just skip the time-travel aspect and read The Game of Kings instead. (BTW, why are all these romances in Scotland? It's those kilts, isn't it?) (less)
Connie Willis brings us a deeply affecting story of time travel gone wrong. While the "time travel" element might sounds really geeky, in an important...moreConnie Willis brings us a deeply affecting story of time travel gone wrong. While the "time travel" element might sounds really geeky, in an important way this science fiction aspect really isn't central to the story. Christopher Booker'sThe Seven Basic Plots identifies the theme of "Voyage and Return" as one of the basic plots, and the fact that one of Willis' lead characters is traveling through time is merely a specific detail of interest. A similar story could be written of a traveler stranded on an island soon to be hit by a tsunami, for example.
The real focus of Willis' story is on the personal, which is rare enough in science fiction to be very welcome.
The basic story: time travel has fairly recently been invented, and university history departments are giddy with the new avenues of research thus opened. One incompetent professor sees an opportunity when his dean goes on vacation to exercise his temporary authority to send a willing graduate student back to the dark ages, a mission nominal deemed too perilous. Because his authority expires at the end of winter vacation, the job is rushed and the researcher is dumped in the past with inadequate diligence paid to the risks. This is compounded by a crisis in the contemporary time, making rescue impossible.
So the student is forced to survive on her own wits, while her would-be rescuers struggle against incompetence and catastrophe. Though te two plot arcs are separated by 700 years, Willis unspools them side by side, converging towards either rescue or tragedy, and she maintains the tense uncertainty to the final pages.
The only flaw in this book is that Willis permits too much amateurishness. Given its stupefying ramifications, it is implausible that time travel would be so completely unregulated. Willis includes organizational incompetence among the hurdles her procrastinators must overcome, but the fundamental cause of the problem is precisely the kind of personal incompetence that organizations are quite good at preventing with basic regulatory frameworks that require due diligence and consensual oversight. This is actually similar to the problem Mary Doria Russell presented in The Sparrow: the problems amateurs might face, but in situations where amateur initiative is almost incomprehensible.
Despite this flaw, Willis presents us with characters that are so real and situations so riveting that this quite long book remains a visceral adventure.
Fascinating concept; I really wanted to read this, but it was a little to dry for me. I couldn't see my interest being adequately sustained through th...moreFascinating concept; I really wanted to read this, but it was a little to dry for me. I couldn't see my interest being adequately sustained through the whole thing, so walked away early.(less)
It took me a few pages to realize I knew the history that ends at Shrewsbury. Once the Prince of Wales was on the Welsh border...moreI gave up on this early.
It took me a few pages to realize I knew the history that ends at Shrewsbury. Once the Prince of Wales was on the Welsh border with Hotspur, I realize I knew what was coming.
And that was a problem: if I'm going to read historical fiction, it had either better be riveting or as accurate as a historian can manage. Making up the quotidian life and internal monologues of actual historic folk is an iffy affair. If it is boring, it better be footnoted with references to diaries, personal letters, etc.
And Pargeter did have a chance to write riveting stuff here. The tragedy that culminated at Shrewsbury is historical fact, and it would have been nice to have Shakespeare's version complemented by a deeper novel. To Pargeter's disadvantage, I'd just finished reading a much more engaging historical adventure — Dorothy Dunnett'sThe Game of Kings, and Bloody Field suffered in comparison. Pargeter spent too much time inside her character's heads and didn't bring out the drama.
P.S. If you do read this, I strongly recommend tracking down a genealogical chart of the Royal Family of England for the appropriate time. In this case, you'd want the descendants of King Edward III, r. 1327-1377. There's a good one in Churchill's excellent History of the English Speaking Peoples, Volume I. It'd also be nice to see the interrelations to the greater British aristocracy (showing the Percys, for example), as well as Welsh, Scottish and French nobility, but I don't know of a source. Wikipedia provides all the necessary information, of course, but not in an easy-to-absorb graphical format.
The Game of Kings is a long romp through embattled Scotland in the sixteenth century. James of Scotland is dead, leaving the child Queen Mary a pawn o...moreThe Game of Kings is a long romp through embattled Scotland in the sixteenth century. James of Scotland is dead, leaving the child Queen Mary a pawn of court intrigue between England and France, and Scotland itself the target of the English army. Our hero, Francis Crawford of Lymond, is a renegade and scoundrel, widely believed to have betrayed Scottish forces at the Battle of Solway Moss, and worse.
But is he so vile, after all? He is the undisputed leader of a band of scurrilous outlaws in the south of Scotland and is hunted by his brother Lord Cutler, but seems to still draw the affections of some, including their mother and perhaps even his sister-in-law, Lord Cutler's young bride.
Joined by William Scott, the rebellious scion of Walter Scott, Lord of Branxholme and Buccleuch, the bandits increasingly skirmish at the feet of the Scottish and English forces raiding across the border. But is the game treachery, or something more complicated?
This book both a standalone tale and the first in a series of fourteen novels (split into two series: six volumes in the Lymond Chronicles, and then eight more in the prequel House of Niccolò series). It is riveting story of historical adventure illuminating the complexities of court life, espionage, betrayal and strange loyalties. The lead characters are clever, wily and well educated (it will sometimes help to have French, Spanish and Latin dictionaries by your side as you read), living through times and drama as wild as that in The Scarlet Pimpernel but with more depth and much more engaging and plausible.
Not a simple book: many readers will be bewildered by the large cast and sometimes strange vocabulary. But note that every book of the fourteen has a Goodreads rating greater than 4, with hundreds of ratings each. The lowest ratings are the first books from each series, with ratings of 4.34 and 4.20 respectively. Those readers that find the first chapters engaging will be rewarded.
This is the eighth volume in Furst's "Night Soldiers" series, although most of the series need not be read in the order published: only The World at N...moreThis is the eighth volume in Furst's "Night Soldiers" series, although most of the series need not be read in the order published: only The World at Night and Red Gold relate directly as a sequential pair. For those that wish the read the books in sequence, Blood of Victory precedes this and The Foreign Correspondent follows.
This is the seventh volume in Furst's "Night Soldiers" series, although most of the series need not be read in the order published: only The World at...moreThis is the seventh volume in Furst's "Night Soldiers" series, although most of the series need not be read in the order published: only The World at Night and Red Gold relate directly as a sequential pair. For those that wish the read the books in sequence, Kingdom of Shadows precedes this and Dark Voyage follows.