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History With a Twist: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Books

A horse, he came to understand, was missing.

Until it was found, nothing could proceed. The island marketplace was crowded on this grey morning in spring. Large, armed, bearded men were very much present, but they were not here for trade. Not today. The market would not open, no matter how appealing the goods on a ship from the south might be.

He had arrived, clearly, at the wrong time. [opening lines of GGK’s The Last Light of the Sun]

 So, like one of my friends, I have been seriously remiss in blog-writing lately. In part, this has just been the craziness of the last few weeks (the November/December confluence of holidays and end-of-term work is rarely a super-fun time for those of us who live on a university schedule), but I’ve also had some of the same issues that Matt talks about in the linked post, of wondering what my handful of loyal readers are actually interested in reading. I originally set up this blog with notions of its being a repository for my blatherings about writing, vaguely sociological philosophizing, and general notations about life and its goings-on… but now I’m not sure just what its purpose should be, other than allowing me to say that yes, I have an online presence of some kind when an agent someday asks the question 🙂

With that in mind, I’m trying something new in this space today. I’m going to attempt a review of one of my new author discoveries, who I haven’t heard much buzz about within my little cadre of fantasy nerds: Guy Gavriel Kay. I’ll try to speak in generalities and avoid spoilers, but there may be a few minor things that creep into the discussion, so if you prefer approaching books in a state of complete purity and innocence, maybe proceed with caution 😉

In the last year and a half, I’ve read seven of GGK’s 12 books, enough that I feel like I can speak a little about “what he writes” (at least insofar as anyone can say that about anyone’s collection of work). In general, his books are somewhere between fantasy and alternate history; they’re clearly fanciful, always including some kind of magic or another, but they’re also strongly rooted in real-world settings and history. Kind of. When talking about them to my friends, I tend to describe them as set in “not-quite-places”; not quite medieval Italy, not quite Tang dynasty China, not quite Saxon England being invaded by the Vikings. Unlike, say, Jacqueline Carey, whose D’Angeline books are set in a tweaked version of the real world (mapping onto real medieval geography, and with most countries other than France — the home base of the series — bearing a strong cultural resemblance to their historical selves), GGK sets his books unequivocally in another world. The obligatory maps included in the first pages don’t bear much resemblance to the ones you’d find on Google; most of the books matter-of-factly discuss the two moons in the sky. But the similarities are there;  Wikipedia entries for his books talk matter-of-factly about how this character’s based on that historical figure, or this event is based on that one.

In his afterward to Under Heaven (his most recent book and the one I read last), GGK addresses the question of why he’s writing this way instead of “just” writing historical fiction, by saying that a) since he can’t actually claim to have insight into the thoughts and motivations of a historical figure, better to make somebody up who shares some of their qualities and see what that person does; and b)

 Remember that I want to keep you turning pages till two a.m. (or better). I always want that. So consider this: If I base a book on the Provence of the troubadours and Courts of Love (A Song for Arbonne), the reader who knows what happens in that time and place does not know what will happen in my story… I’ve served notice with the shift to imagined Arbonne from real Provence that I reserve the right to change events, sometimes dramatically. This, for me, generates storytelling energy, narrative suspense, even after-the-book-is-done reflections on our own time and how it might have been different if certain events had been otherwise. The past opens up in the imagination. “What if?” is more than a game; it is a way of considering where we are and how we arrived here… and this is a huge component of what I am trying to do (Author’s Note, p. 578)

I think this balance – masterfully pulled off – is one big reason why I love his books so much. They’re clearly carefully researched, and he doesn’t skimp on the details; the bits of Under Heaven laying out the way armies communicate over vast distances, or the complicated relationship between the Cyngael (not-quite-Welsh) and Anglcyn (not-quite-Anglo-Saxon) peoples in The Last Light of the Sun, or the almost-ubiquitous reflections on the strangenesses of the different cultures profiled in the books by one kind of outsider or another, are a lot of fun to read. But his books also have a self-conscious awareness of history that I don’t often see in other places; moments where the narrator draws back and explains, for a moment, how the events that we’re seeing unroll in front of us will be framed coming down through the ages. Which, for this reader who thinks way too much about history and its telling, is a definite bonus.

Craftwise, the books are serviceable. The characters aren’t the most memorable I’ve ever encountered (I’ve yet to meet a Tyrion Lannister or Melisande Shahrizai in one of GGK’s worlds), but they carry the tales well. The plots are tightly woven and self-contained, with no threads left hanging at the finish (if you’re one of those readers who likes ambiguity in your endings, these books might not be the ones for you). Where the books shine, as a rule, is in two areas: their construction of place (so much so that I’d recommend waiting to pick one up until you have an hour to spend with it at the beginning, to acclimate yourself to the world in one big chunk to begin with), and their pacing, particularly when events in the books are picking up. When I reach climactic events in one of these books – when there’s a duel to be fought, or a city to sack, or magical forces to overpower – I tend to go into hermit mode, putting my head down and telling Husband to leave me be until I’ve got through to the end.

The other thing I like about these books, in general, is that they’re not afraid to go for a bittersweet ending. I think that might have something to do with the historical grounding, too; history always works out, and like I’ve said in a previous post, the human race hasn’t managed to destroy itself yet, but things rarely work out just the way we plan them to. And I think, by and large, seeing that reflected in fiction makes for a more satisfying ending.

If you’re interested in dipping a toe into his pool of work, I’d recommend starting with Tigana (medieval Italy) or The Last Light of the Sun, with its un-Vikings and un-Saxons and un-Welsh (not to mention the poor Moorish merchant whose reflections, quoted above, start the book). I’ll keep poking through the used bookstores and picking up what I find there, and maybe I’ll have another author review for y’all sometime soon. Or else maybe my schedule will calm down and I’ll be able to go back to philosophizing. Either way, I promise to be more committed to regular posting in the new year (and maybe even before then). Enjoy the winter holidays, everyone!

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3 Comments

  1. I started Tigana. I’m enjoying it so far!

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  2. Kirsten

     /  December 22, 2012

    I thought the characters in Tigana were pretty memorable. 🙂 Have you read any Patricia McKillip? I think I associate her and Kay in my head because I discovered/read stuff by them right around the same time.

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    • I’ve tried her a few times and can’t get into her style for some reason… definitely the same kind of dense atmosphere though. I find that kind of stuff has to be the right flavor for me to get into it — I’ve had an uneven appreciation for LeGuin for that same reason, with some stuff exactly the kind of worldbuilding I like and other stuff leaving me going “…erm… this is too much anthropology…”

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