A Song for Arbonne
A Song for Arbonne is Guy Gavriel Kay's fifth novel, after the trilogy of the Fionavar tapestry and Tigana. It was first published in 1992.
In typical Kay fashion this is a story about a world bearing strong resemblance to a part of our world, in this case Provence around the time of the Albigensian crusade in the beginning of the 13th century. Even with those obvious and intended parallells this is still a work of fiction and fantasy, as shown by the twin moons of this world.
The country of Arbonne has always been a sore spot for the High Priest of Gorhaut, the neighbouring country to the north. With its Court of Love and its troubadours and the willful women with their goddess Rian having a spot beside the god Corannos, Arbonne opposes everything that Gorhaut stands for. So far, the fragile balance has been kept by Gorhaut being in war with another neighbour, but now they have finally made peace while Arbonne is weakened by inner conflicts.
To Arbonne comes Blaise of Gorhaut to serve as a mercenary for a time, in a self-imposed exile from his own country after the peace treaty with conditions he can't agree with. He comes to work for one of the major dukes of the country, Bertran de Talair, who has a long unresolved bitter conflict with another duke, Urté de Miraval, over Urté's wife who died 23 years ago. Against his will, Blaise gets more and more involved in the affairs of Arbonne, and slowly he also finds some ways out of his own inner struggles. He comes to play a much more central role in the conflict between Arbonne and Gorhaut than he could ever have imagined.
Arbonne is a place where women have a stronger position than elsewhere in the world, with a woman ruling the Court of Love where a swordsman can be made to bow to a troubadour. Music and art also play a greater part here than in the surrounding countries. The troubadours are revered at court, and for a nobleman to have one of them infatuated with his wife, composing love songs to her beauty, is seen as a great honour.
Music is made to play a big part of the story, but not as often is the case in fantasy novels as prophetic. The songs sung by the characters are commentaries and provoke others into action.
It is rather clear right from the beginning who the good guys and the bad guys are, and instead of delving too much into evil the focus of the story lies on other ideas, examining art and love and patriotism.
Kay takes a very subtle approach to the issue of magic, this being a fantasy novel after all. There are no sorcerors or mages with powerful spells to smite their enemies. The High Priestess of Rian is granted some powers from the goddess, but they cannot be called upon when needed, and only serve as a limited aid in understanding and controlling the world. The position of High Priest of Corannos or High Priestess of Rian is more about politics than religion, and the will of the god(ess) can need a helpful hand sometimes to make the people see it as such.
This might not be Kay's best work, but it is quite impressive nonetheless. The language is painfully beautiful at times and the characters are very well fleshed out. As most of Kay's books it is about a time of change, where the world will not be the same as it used to be, and in this case that change is forced upon them and the Arbonne they have known will be gone. This gives a tragic feel to all of the book, making it a lament over beauty and art and fair things lost.
Sources or rather inspiration found at
A Song for Arbonne, Guy Gavriel Kay, 1992.
http://www.brightweavings.com/ - The authorized Guy Gavriel Kay website. See for example the reviews, the bibliographies, and the scholarship pages.
http://www.anthologie.free.fr/anthologie/ventadour/ventadour.htm - some background info on the troubadour Bernart de Ventadour
http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/heroine2.html - Eleanor of Aquitaine