I first read the Fionavar Tapestry (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, The Darkest Road) because I was told by someone (I no longer remember who) that his girlfriend had searched for ages to get this series in hardback, because she knew she was going to read it again and again. That seemed like a pretty good recommendation to me, so I picked up the series. I remember later recommending the books to Ricardo again and again, until he finally bought The Summer Tree. He was at the book store the next day to get the rest of the series.
Not that this is a feel-good light-reading book. It isn't. Bad things happen. Lots of people die. I spend sections of this book sniffling and trying not to burst into tears(You can't read when you're crying. That's a huge problem I try to avoid.) because I really care what happens. For me personally, that is the hallmark of a book I will read time and again--caring very deeply what happens to the characters.
It was also interesting to read these books after all the reading I've done recently of folktales and mythology, although Kay doesn't really use any single mythology, he simply picks and chooses certain ideas from different cultures. The Summer Tree is an incarnation of the world tree upon which Odin died, and the crows Thought and Memory are Odin's. But the summer tree reminds me also of many other different stories, all tied together. Which is really what he does. He takes disparate ideas and ties them together into one story in which the ideas fit together perfectly.
He also addresses the subject of free will throughout the books (a favorite topic of mine). Kim is a Seer who can foresee the future, but eventually realizes that does not make the future immutable. In this world, we can change, we can refuse to accept our foreseen destiny, but choosing to do so can can have tremendous consequences.
On the down side, one thing that bothered me was that the characters were drawn into the fantasy world from "our time" and this is made quite clear in the first book, yet after the first book, there is no further interaction between the characters and their families in "our time". Despite the fact that they know they may not survive, there is no sense that they have made their goodbyes to their families, to their lives. For some of the characters this doesn't seem unreasonable, but for the character of Paul especially, it bothered me. Just something that struck me as not quite right, but only a minor flaw.
So, it's got all my favorite elements: folklore, free will, great characters. Plus the suspense of not knowing who is going to survive to the end. Definitely one of my favorite series, and one I'd recommend to anyone who loves fantasy.
Why is it that every time I finish one of Guy Gavriel Kay's books, I ask myself, "How could I have forgotten how good his books are?" Even reading this book for a second time, I was still surprised at how good it was.
This book was frustrating at first. There are several story lines that seem quite unrelated, and the prologue seems related to nothing whatsoever for the longest time. I had to keep going back to check names in the prologue and keep checking the maps to keep everything straight... but everything does come together, and it is worth every bit of confusion when it does.
Beware, though, that this is a massive book. 673 pages that took even me awhile to go through, but it is all one book. No sequels or prequels, just a brief prologue, the story, and then a brief epilogue (Although I have to admit that I almost prefer the book without the epilogue.)
I am curious as to the source of the casual brutality of the rulers in this book. I know that Guy Gavriel Kay does a great deal of research for his books, and it disturbs me to think that such horrors could have been common. One can only hope that the heroics described were just as common. Yet the violence and torture aren't casual in his storytelling, and he does attempt to distance the characters from the acts, telling them as remembered horrors rather than something experienced by the characters. But it is still something difficult to read and to consider.
Luckily most of the book is not dedicated to the horrors perpetrated by the villains, but instead to the lives of those who live under their rule. It is also a story of power, and what those in power will do to retain their power, and what those without power will do to attain it.
In the autumn season of the wine, word went forth from among the cypresses and olives and the laden vines of his country estate that Sandre Duke of Astibar, once ruler of that city and its province, had drawn the last bitter breath of his exile and age and died.
It's hard to imagine how a country could be stripped of its name. Harder still to imagine the citizens of such a country, and how they would survive and manage such a loss. Yet Tigana is lost. It's name stripped from all but the few survivors of the land. The very word a cypher to all but those born there. This book tells of the struggles and desires of the citizens of that once proud country, and how they strive for the redemption of their country and themselves.
The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995)
This is a very good, albeit very depressing book. Set in the same world as Sailing to Sarantium, this book describes the battles between the followers of Jad versus the Asharites.
If Sailing to Sarantium reminded me of Rome, this book reminded me of Spain. Of the Crusades. Of Christianity and Islam, with Judaism caught in between.
Yes, of course the Jaddites and the Asharites do not equate precisely to Christians and Muslims, and the Kindarath are not the Jews, but the parallels are striking, and in a time of continued religious conflict, difficult to read without equating the imagined faiths with the real faiths.
My only other problem was that I did not care for the conceit of the last chapters. If someone is dead, let them be dead and tell me. None of this Schrödinger's cat business of dead/not dead. Just tell me when and if someone is dead. The entire book was building towards this point, just give us the bad news and get it over with.
Despite those minor irritations, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and as usual with his books, had a difficult time putting it down at night to go to bed. As always, I love Guy Gavriel Kay's characters almost as much as I love the fact that he can tell a story in one book. Ammar ibn Khairan. Rodrigo Belmonte. Jehane. They all become read in my mind, and it mattered very much to me what happened to them. Yet it is Guy Gavriel Kay's storytelling that I like the most.
The afternoon's challenge in the lists had been effortless, in fact. One of the things that with which he was having trouble.
There had been five of them against the two of them, and the Karcher had chosen four of the best captains in Ragosa to join him. There was a visible anger in those men, a grimness, the need to prove a point and not just about wages. It had been contrived as a display, and entertainment for the court and city, not to-the-death. But even so, eyes beneath the helms had been hard and cold.
It ought never to have been so swift, so much like a dance or a dream. It was as if there had been music playing somewhere, almost but not quite heard. He had fought those five men side-by-side and then back-to-back with (him) who he had never seen in his life, and it had been as nothing had ever been before, on a battlefield or anywhere else. It had felt weirdly akin to having doubled himself. To fighting as if there were two hard-trained bodies with one controlling mind. They hadn't spoken during the fight. No warnings, tactics. It hadn't even lasted long enough for that.
I love that passage. He doesn't describe the fight, yet I can imagine it easily (which is pretty impressive for me, as I don't normally see pictures in my head as I read. Only scattered images for passages that particularly move me.)
So read this book, but plan to follow it up with something light and cheerful, just in case you too see too much of the real world.
On a note unrelated to the story, I do have to say that I greatly prefer the Canadian cover art to the American. That's the problem with thorough websites. You get to find out what you're missing.
I had these books for several years (they were published in 1998), and hadn't gotten around to reading them, for the very reasons I enjoy Guy Gavriel Kay's writing so much: his books are deep, engrossing, and not something that I can just plow through in a couple of hours. These books are not light reading, but they are good reading.
As Guy Gavriel Kay says on his website and in the introduction to the books, Sarantium is based upon Byzantium, and he spent a great deal of time on research for the book, including learning about mosaics and chariot racing. I'll assume that his research was fruitful, and that his descriptions were accurate, as I have no idea myself. I did find the descriptions of the chariot races more interesting than the descriptions of laying mosaic, but I do NOT feel that there is not too much of either. Both are integral to the story, and as I said, interesting to read about.
He heard the Glory of the Blues (he who had once been the Glory here, himself) screaming over the crashing din... Astorgus saw the lad jerk his head swiftly left and immediately, splendidly react, without an instant to think what he was doing. Astorgus stopped breathing, cut off prayer, watched.
The book follows the path of a mosaic maker, as he is called to the city of Sarantium to work on a mosaic in the great sanctuary. His travels and arrival in the city end up influencing the lives of others (as one would expect, otherwise there will be no story) are amazing, yet not unbelievable. There are very few fantastic events, even with them the story reads more like an historical novel than your typical fantasy, which is perfectly fine with me.
The story is wonderful, with many different characters, and an intricately woven plot. Although I do like the main character, I have to say that I particularly liked some of the secondary characters, especially Vargos the Incini, Rustem of Kerakek, and Scortius the charioteer, but even some of the lesser characters, such as the chef Strumosus, I wished I could meet in real life. (Not that I have any desire to live in such a time, I just particularly like the characters.)
If you plan on reading the books, I highly recommend getting your hands on both of them, as book one, Sailing to Sarantium, ends somewhat abruptly, and when I finished it I immediately ran to my bookshelf for the second book.
I did have one major complaint. Who ever edited the American (Harper) version of this book needs a swift kick in the shins. In the first book especially I noticed several times that there was no space between the period at the end of one sentence and the start of the next sentences. It was unpleasantly distracting, and I'm not sure why it happened repeatedly.
Besides that, the book was delightful to read, and I had a difficult time putting it down each night to go to sleep. The story twisted and turned, and never went precisely where I expected, which is something I love in a story. Sometimes when reading you know precisely where the story is going, but with Guy Gavriel Kay you may think that you know, but you always end up somewhere else.
The Last Light of the Sun (2004)
Good luck finding this book. I came across it only because I was searching Amazon for another of his books, and realized that he had a new book out. Of course I've found a lot of books on Amazon recently that I saw nowhere in our local book stores, so you may yet be able to find this book.
I have to say that someone should give Guy Gavriel Kay an award for being able to tell a story in a single book. Excluding the 'Fionovar Tapestry', he manages to tell his stories in one or two books. I can think of several authors who could stand to learn a thing or to from him.
The Last Light of the Sun seemed different from his previous books, although not in a bad way. I think it was the faerie realm that did it. Although it suited the book, it struck me as unexpected, although not out of place. (After all, how could he write something that was so Celtic without including faerie?)
Set again in the same space, although not time, as several of his previous books, The Last Light of the Sun is Celtic and Norse in spirit if not exact detail.
The Erlings are the Vikings, the Cyngael are the Celts, and the Anglcyn are the Anglo-Saxons (though it took me more than half to book to see that Anglcyn could probably be pronounced Anglican. Chalk it up to the say my brain works--it's the same quirk that makes me a poor speller.)
As I've read only minimal Norse folklore (Celtic folklore is far more popular and easier to find) the Erling culture fascinated me, and I wonder which concepts were fantasy and which were historical. (What historical precedent, if any, did volur have? If it was based in history, where can I read more about it?
As always, it is strange, the things that speak to one from a book. On one day, at one time, it may be one thing, but on a different day it might be something else entirely. This is the passage that struck in particular on this day:
"There is no piety in my heart," said Aeldred. "I am not in a state to address the god."
"We are never in a state to do so. It is the way of our lives in his world. One of the things for which we ask mercy is that inadequacy." He was on familiar ground now, but it didn't feel that way.
"And our anger?"
"That too, my lord."
Under Heaven (2010)
A new Guy Gavriel Kay book is like a small discovered treasure, something to be saved until a time when it can be enjoyed and savored. Some books I love because they are romps, others because they are long slow strolls through another place and time.
With that in mind, I have to say that Under Heaven may be my favorite Guy Gavriel Kay book yet.
Shen Tai is the middle son of a great general. After his father’s death, during his mourning period, he retires to the haunted slopes of Kuala Nor, where countless died during years of battles between Kitai and Sardia and lay unburied, their ghosts wailing at night. Tai spends two years burying the bones of the dead of both sides, as his way of honoring both the dead and has father. The armies on both sides, seeing what he is doing, honor him with supplies–one at the full moon and the other at the new moon. But Tai is otherwise left in peace.
So it is a shock when two years have passed and suddenly an old friend appears with news–news that is to change Tai’s life just as much as the two years he has spend burying the dead did.
And sadly, that synopsis or introduction does nothing to explain the beauty and complexity and majesty of the story.
As with most of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, it is set in an historic time and place, changed just a little to allow him to overlay his own world upon our past–a world that in this case contains subtle magics.
If you have not read Guy Gavriel Kay, it is hard to explain his books. All I can say is that they are things of beauty to be savored and enjoyed and treasured.