Just to get this out of the way first – I know naff all about medieval France. Absolutely nothing. Ok, nothing useful. I think they wrote godawful Latin poetry that rhymed, because they were heathens*. That might have been someone else though.
So Guy Gavriel Kay writes historical novels, but changes some names and adds one or two vaguely fantasy features so they look a bit like SFF in a poor light without your glasses on. And apparently changes the endings, according to University friend (who knows what an Albigensian Crusade is). I like this, as a conceit, even though I think it is totally cheating. I like trying to see the real world through the novel, and also seeing how you can take something real and maybe a bit dry and turn it into a moving novel that really does work as political fantasy and sucks you into a story.
The “story” bit is why I think this is now my favourite GGK book. When I reviewed Al-Rassan (did I review Al-Rassan? If I did, I definitely would have said this) I found it a bit too… history. It hasn’t really got the strong feeling of plot that Arbonne (or most actual-fantasy) has. It just feels like some things that happened, one after another, to some people who seem nice and you don’t want to have bad stuff happen to them. Or even it just happens around them. It doesn’t feel… what’s the word I want? It doesn’t feel like it means anything, I guess. It’s just some stuff. Whereas Arbonne feels like there’s a point to it. And somehow that makes it a better book? It certainly makes it more easy to read, because you get the sense that there is a direction to the activity that happens. You may not know where you’re going but there is a definite somewhere down the line that you will reach, and that does matter. This is especially helped by the first part of the book being set twenty-three years before the rest of it, and you spend a good portion of time trying to figure out exactly how it all fits together. Faced with that sort of introduction, it is hard to see the story as anything but a coherent and directed whole.
To be honest, everything I could say about this is “like the rest of GGK, but better”. The characters are better, the politics more intriguing, the scenery more engaging and the drama more enthralling. I liked his other books… but he has improved. Oh… so it turns out this is his earliest book I’ve read. Thanks wikipedia, now I’m just confused. The only thing I really have to criticise is the ending – it ends very abruptly. I got to the last page and flicked a bit further on convinced I was missing something. I want to know what happened neeeeeeext. I mean, it certainly reaches a climax and settles most of the issues it raises… but it leaves a lot of things unanswered too, a lot of new questions, and it doesn’t feel like the satisfying resolution that you get with some books. It feels like there’s something still trailing off into a potential future… which I suppose means it still has a sense of the history-book about it like the others. Because it is, at least partially, a history, not just a story, it cannot really end, because well, yeah. There’s always going to be a “but what next?”, because there will never be an absolute culmination of all the things with satisfactory happy endings for all. If he didn’t do this, I suppose, it would lose any real feeling of historicality, and I think that’s a really important part of what GGK is doing. If he didn’t leave something of a real-worldness about it, it wouldn’t feel slightly special and different and intriguing. And it really does. So my one complaint is a small price to pay for an excellent book.
If Richmond library has more GGK, I will definitely be seeking him out, but not immediately. I love this, but it’s a small doses thing, definitely. In the meantime, I have a couple of exciting books to get through:
1) The Night Circus (a present from a friend; I knew nothing about it and am half way through having started today).
2) Children of God (sequel to the Sparrow, and strongly recommended/badgered/pestered/blackmailed/coerced to read by a different friend).
3) A Robin Hobb book (bought by the same friend as a joke but I’ll read the damn thing anyway because why not. The blog needs some more vitriol).
*Sorry, tangent. University friend is a pain in the arse.