I’ve wanted to write a review of Guy Gavriel Kay for this site for some time now, but I’ve been intimidated away from the task. I’m still not confident that I will do justice. I can’t possibly hope to discuss all eleven of his books in one review, nor do I feel I can lump them all together without unfairly categorizing -- a limitation which Kay shies away from. What I aim to do here is to give a very brief introduction to the books that I have read in preparation for a review of his newest release, Under Heaven. Hopefully this will give me just barely enough background to make the appropriate references without wasting space in my future post.
Kay is an award-winning Canadian fantasy-fiction author with a propensity to use real-world history as a model for his imaginary settings. He was called upon to assist in the editing of Tolkein’s Silmarillion in 1974, and his first trilogy was written in the high fantasy style inspired by this experience.
To date, he has released eleven novels which include one trilogy and one duology that have been translated into over twenty languages. His writing is smooth and without excessive complexity, and his strength is rooted in the richness of his thematic, emotional storytelling. His exploration of the juxtaposition of deep tragedy and momentous triumph delves the reader deeply into the relationship between all tales ever told.
Kay’s first novel, The Summer Tree (1984) was the first in The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, which later included The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road (1986). This story – told in a very traditional, “High Fantasy” style -- describes five Canadian university students who travel to the fictional world of Fionavar, what Kay calls “The First of All Worlds.” The story details a threat to Fionavar that, as the origin of all myths and stories, could have ramifications that will echo to all worlds. Each character has some important role to play that transcends time, and together they work to overcome evil. It’s pretty traditional. Many people who read these books aren’t especially impressed. A little overambitious (Kay throws in some Arthurian legend), The Fionavar Tapestry can get a little childish, and the characters can be a little overdramatic. My dad has described it as an immature book, which makes some sense given that it was Kay’s first. But what impresses me is how dramatically he improves from this point on. It is also interesting to note that every subsequent novel that he released makes references to Fionavar: the First.
In 1990 Kay published his first solo novel Tigana, one of many that would be set in a world that historically and geographically mimics our own. Tigana takes place in The Penninsula of the Palm, a country that mirrors the fractured medieval Italy. Though it shares a common language and culture, the Penninsula is not a unified nation, split into nine provinces with a long history of border-struggles. This constant conflict paves the way for two conquests by two powerful sorcerers from the the east and west mainland, one a king and the other a vicious warlord. The story centers on a group of rebels attempting to ambitiously overthrow both occupiers and take back their homeland. The themes of Tigana focus on shades of morality and imperfection. While the primary characters are heroic, sympathetic, and patriotic, they are also ruthless. The grief-maddened tyrant king becomes painfully likable to the reader, clouding the savagery of his decisions during his occupation.
This is where Kay first showed a delightful aptitude for confusing the emotions of his readers. Imperfect, unpredictable, and complex, his characters come to life in a way that is at once tragic and triumphant; one person’s fall is often another person’s rise. The somewhat surprising ending is an absolutely beautiful representation of this notion.
Kay’s next few novels were all based on historical periods of our own history. A Song For Arbonne (1992) is a story about art, courtly love and religious war modeled after medieval France and the Albigensian crusade. My personal favorite, The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995) , is based in an 11th-century Spain analog that concentrates on the relationships between the three major religions of the region – the Jaddites (Christians) Asharites (Muslims), and the Kindath (Jews) – and three protagonists – a female Kindath physician, an Asharite poet and mercenary based loosely on ibn Ammar, and a Jaddite cavalry captain based on El Cid.
Next is The Sarantine Mosaic, a duology comprising of Sailing to Sarantium (1998), an allusion to W.B. Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium, and Lord of Emperors (2000). This story is inspired by the 6th century Mediterranean region, formerly the Roman Empire, during the looming conflict between the Byzantine Empire and Ostrogothic Italy. It follows a western-born mosaicist who has been called to Sarantium to complete interior artwork for the emperor’s new dome (clearly, the Hagia Sophia). Kay is probably the most historically accurate in these novels, reshaping the story of the reign of Justinian I and his ex-prostitute wife, Theodora. He even includes a re-creation of the Nika Riots and characters modeled after the general Belisarius, his cheating wife Antonina, and his bitter secretary Procopius. Having read Robert Browning’s Justinian and Theodora as well as A Secret History by Procopius in a college history class, I found this one exceptionally fun.
In 2004 Kay came out with the only book of his that I have yet to read, The Last Light of the Sun. I have no idea why, but in four attempts I have never once managed to get through more than about 20 pages. It’s not for boredom or poor quality, I just seem to get distracted. Last Light is based on Viking culture during the reign of Alfred the Great, complete with raids to the parallels of nearby England/Wales.
In 2007 Kay published Ysabel, an attempt at a modern-day fantasy. Ysabel is set in Provence and centered on a teenage boy named Ned. Bringing back characters from Fionavar, now older and returned to our world, Kay seems to be writing a story about the connections between all stories, representing how they resonate and repeat through all generations. Our hero encounters a cute teenage girl and they together witness a graveyard ritual that pits two super-human men from cultures past against each other in a long-standing competition for a beautiful woman they both love. Ned is dragged in when his father’s personal assistant accidentally stumbles into the ritual and becomes the host for Ysabel. The jury is still out for me on this one. I don’t really dig the whole modern fantasy thing, but Kay does this lightly and sweetly, almost purposefully leaving the story with loose ends and rushed explanations. It’s a pretty quick read, and I would say the attempt was successful.
This was Kay’s most recent book until Under Heaven, which I believe is back to his old world, this time in Imperial China. I’m excited to see if his excursions into Ysabel have brought any new maturity. I love him as a storyteller, and I think my favorite thing about him are his endings. He has a habit of being brilliantly misleading in his final chapters, building you up for one end and then surprising you with the thing you least expected, even when you’re watching for it. I find him quite captivating and skilled at weaving together the story and the reader into a complicated tapestry of emotion, tragedy, beauty, and humanity. I can’t wait to get back into his books all over again.