Third Kay book here. Seeing trends in his work over time. A Song for Arbonne was written in 1992, after Tigana and before The Last Light of the Sun. It's my favorite of the three I've read. It lacks the sing-songy run-on comma-spliced sentences of both other books (though they were much heavier and purposeful in tLLotS). It also manages decent characterization, and for the first time, I was well and truly attached to characters in one of Kay's books. Is this because I like French troubadours and the Court of Love from history? No, I don't think so. I think it's because, in this book, Kay comes much closer to the style of fantasy novel I enjoy reading: one without an overt agenda (Tigana) and with normalized characters and writing style.
I really enjoyed reading about Blaise (blaze, blasé...clearly the first) and his confusion regarding the Arbonnais way of life. I liked the fact that, though he was from Gorhaut, which was quite repressive to its women, he rejected his father's way of life (and this included, it seems). On top of that, he'd spent several years traveling as a mercenary before the novel begins, so he'd had many different cultural experiences to ameliorate his motherless, father-infested Gorhaut upbringing.
Yet he'd not been to Arbonne before, and so was much confused at the goddess-inspired woman's position in its culture. A woman ran the Court of Love, completely separate from the ruling Duke's position (although at one point, a Duke was married to the woman in charge of the Court). Not being raised with the goddess Rian in his life, Blaise managed to be mild in his opinion of her, rather than raging to the point of desiring religio-genocide, as his father is. An extreme motive for the plots of the novel, it nevertheless does its job, and manages to create a strong, unapologetic villain.
As tLLotS did afterward, this novel engages the older generation of characters as well as the younger, in a complex weave of mystery and secrets. A couple of the plot points seem baldly to be such--and both involve Lord Urté of Miraval, who came across as a not-quite-fully-developed character, despite his importance to more than one plot thread. But once more, Kay's mastery of culture, blending the historical with the fantastical, shines down on Arbonne with a blend of blue and white moonlight. The poetry, the songs, the attitudes, all contributed to a fully believable Arbonne (sans one thing, below).
And the magic was more understandable than in other books: the priestesses of Rian could do more on their sacred islands than off them, and some things were completely forbidden. I get that magic is, by definition, something mysterious. Otherwise, we'd call it science. But I really prefer knowing at least some of the avenues magic use requires, and Kay seems perennially inclined to the opposite. Alas.
Aside from my Lord de Miraval, the only other bit of the book that distracted me was the feelings of the joglar Lisseut for Blaise. She loves him, she loves him not. She loves him, she loves him not. And never tells him, nor acts on it in any meaningful way, ever. I was expecting a more formal approach to her emotional state, making her the female version of a troubadour in love with his courtly lady, writing songs to her beauty with the approval of his lord. But that never happened, it seems, according to her vidan at the end of the book. I was disappointed, and worse, I was reminded of Dianora from Tigana. The book started off with such a case of courtly love, ultimately involving Blaise in his mercenary capacity. It seemed only fitting that the book end with a similar case. But no, I was denied. Unless it was just too well-hidden: the vidan states that Lisseut was friends with Blaise and his first and second wives, and also bore a child whose father is obvious (this sentence kills off a poor character who comes into her own only at the end of the book; how irritating).
In Arbonne, love and marriage are two separate things entirely. Ariane, queen of the Court of Love, has a homosexual husband, so she sleeps with whomever she likes, and he does the same. Part of the plot's generational secrets stem from a character who did something similar, being married for politics. So it's possible that with Lisseut being from Arbonne, she'd be allowed Arbonnais ways in the court at Gorhaut after the book ends. But...how likely is that? Honestly? I couldn't decide, and Kay didn't make it clear she even got to live at that court as Blaise's troubadour. Which she should have.
I'm beginning to see that the way Kay treats sex is more as a weapon than as a gift between his characters. Couldn't guess as to why, but it's not my thing. As with Tigana, some of the sex in this book is used to dominate or repress or humiliate, and it's not a subtle thing, either in act or in the writing of it. It's meant to shock, to offend. All this sex belongs to Gorhautian men, those evil dogs who aren't interested in anything equal about women whatsoever. The sex in Arbonne is all consensual, though. Because they get women in each and every nuanced way. Or do they?
Okay, I lied. One further thing disappointed me about this book. In a land where the goddess is worshipped above the god, unlike anywhere else in the six countries, why do they still follow the same patriarchal political maneuverings in marriage?? (This popped right out at me because I got called on a similar issue by an equality zealot on a short story I wrote once) Why are the women of Arbonne married away from their families for political reasons regardless of love, if womanhood is such a valued, nay worshipped, trait? The more I thought about that, the less sense it seemed to make. The culture that Arbonne had was different in many respects due to its goddess worship - love and music being primary - but in the political sphere, it was identical. Why should a goddess keep out of politics? Should she stay in the cosmic kitchen instead? Or, apparently, the conservatory? The Duchess' daughter was the High Priestess, for sheep's sake. Yet Kay seemed either unaware of this gap, or incapable of altering this situation to fit his goddess-culture.
His...goddess-culture? Maybe that's the rub right there.
Most of the characters in this book were a joy to read, and the plot, while mostly straightforward, also contained plenty of intrigue and drama to hold my interest. But I must confess that this book only shone as brightly as it did after reading the previous two Kay books. There's not going to be enough interest for a second read.
I'mma go with 4 stars of 5 for this one.
I'm also highly entertained by the consistent flaws or stylistic variations I've seen in Kay's writing, which I've heard denounced as evil and a publishing-deal-killer countless times from countless mouths. Yet here Kay is, published, with numerous books to his name. What's the lesson here? Write what you love. Don't change what you write just because you don't think it will be published as it is. Kay's been published numerous times, and his distinct voice is read by thousands upon thousands of readers. I may not particularly be a fan, but reading and writing are notoriously subjective in taste. For which I am, as Kay no doubt is, eternally grateful.