Guy Gavriel Kay

Books: Fantasy

Tigana (1990), Song for Arbonne (1992), The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995), The Last Light of the Sun (2004), Under Heaven (2010), River of Stars (2013)

The Fionavar Tapestry: The Summer Tree (1984), The Wandering Fire (1986), The Darkest Road (1986)

The Sarantine Mosaic: Sailing to Sarantium (1998), Lord of Emperors (2000)

Fionavar Tapestry 

The Summer Tree (1984), The Wandering Fire (1986) , The Longest Road (1986)

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.

Rating: 9/10

Tigana (1990)

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.

June 2005 | Rating: 8/10

The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995)

lionsofal-rassanThis is a very good, albeit very depressing book. It 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.)

And the characters! I love Rodrigo.

(T)he talk was of crop rotation and the pattern of rainfall here in the tagra lands.

"We aren't the real warriors of Valledo," he'd said to his company upon mounting up again after one such conversation. "These people are. It will be a mistake for any man who rides with me to forget that."

"This," said Rodrigo Belmonte of Valledo plaintively, "is distressingly familiar. A woman putting me in my place. Are you sure you've never met my wife?"

There are so many passages that rang true for me throughout the book.

I can only say that past a certain point accepting the things (he) has done feels like sharing in them. Being responsible for them.

Jehane hated to cry; she regarded it as a defeat.

There was something to be said for straightforwardness in a world of oblique intrigue.

It is an old truth that men and women sometimes miss what they hate as much as what they love.

(He) opened his mouth and then closed it. There was nothing he could think of to say. There were places into which words could not go. Not the words he knew.

There is so much I love about this book–love even though it made me cry–makes me cry now, re-reading passages as I write this.

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.

Published by Harper Voyager

The Sarantine Mosaic

Sailing to Sarantium (1998) and Lord of Emperors (2000)

Published by ROC

June 2004 | Rating: 9/10

Sailing to Sarantium (1998)

Guy Gavriel Kay is an incredible writer. He doesn't wrote epic fantasy in the sense of swords and sorcerey–in fact there is often no magic in his stories. He instead researches a subject an a time period and grounds his story in those elements, while writing of a time and place that never existed.

Sailing to Sarantium is about politics and moasicists and soldiers and chariot drivers while being at its core about people and truths.

Writers of history often seek the dramatic over the truth. It is a failing of the profession.

It is also about how events and people impress and shape individuals who are in only the periphery of the story. How a single event can change not just the major players, but also those who are there about whom we in theory shouldn't care.

Strumosus buffeted him about the head and shoulders with a long-handled wooden spoon, breaking the spoon. The spoons broke easily, as it happened. Kyros had noticed that the cook seldom did much actual damage, for all the apparent force of his blows.

I love how that simple paragraph tells you a great deal about the cook, but I also love how we see events from the view of a young kitchen hand, and can imagine the results of those events will change the life of a single individual.

To say of a man that he was sailing to Sarantium was to say that his life was on the cusp of change: poised for emergent greatness, brilliance, fortune— or else at the very precipice of a final and absolute fall as he met something too vast for his capacity.

But mostly I love the seeing the story and characters slowly unfold.

If this was the world as the god— or gods— had made it, then mortal man, this mortal man, could acknowledge that and honor the power and infinite majesty that lay within it, but he would not say it was right, or bow down as if he were only dust or a brittle leaf blown from an autumn tree, helpless in the wind.

I will admit that this story may be harder to start–we get a lot of characters all at once, and events that shape the future, but as with all of Guy Gavriel Kay's stories, the unfolding of events is a wonder and a delight.

Published by ROC

Lord of Emperors (2000)

The sequel to Sailing to Sarantium.

The second half of this story opens in Bassania, with the King of Kings suffering an arrow to the shoulder.

Had any other patient been shown to them in this state, the physicians would all have spoken the words of formal withdrawal: With this affliction I will not contend. No blame for ensuing death could attach to them when they did so.

It was not, of course, permitted to say this when the afflicted person was the king.

Rustem is a physician who has traveled, learning new medical techniques, and when the royal physicians fail to have any useful courses of treatment, Rustem is called in.

For his success, he is elevated in rank, and sent to Sarantium, to further his learning.

After the formal audience, the governor dismissed his attendants and confided privately to Rustem that he had been encountering some difficulties in fulfilling his obligations to both his wife and his favorite mistress. He admitted, somewhat shamefacedly, that he'd gone so far as to consult a cheiromancer, without success. Prayer had also failed to be of use.

Rustem refrained from comment on either of these solutions.

And of course, he sees other patients along the way.

But the main story soon returns to Sarantium, and Crispin.

With the thought he detected a slight stirring of the scaffold, a swaying movement, which meant someone was climbing.

This was forbidden. It was utterly and absolutely forbidden to the apprentices and artisans. To everyone, in fact, including Artibasos, who had built this Sanctuary. A rule: when Crispin was up here, no one climbed his scaffolding. He had threatened mutilation, dismemberment, death. Vargos, who was proving to be as competent an assistant here as on the road, had been scrupulous in preserving Crispin's sanctity aloft.

But it is not the mosaic that is the heart of this story (even if it is the heart of Crispin) it is the politics.

Crispin, listening to Leontes now, had understood something, remembering the Strategos's direct words and manner in the Attenine Palace the night of his own first appearance there. Leontes spoke to the court like a blunt soldier, and to soldiers and citizens with the grace of a courtier, and it worked, it worked very well.

The first thing Gisel came to understand, as she and the Strategos and his exquisitely haughty wife entered the presence of the Emperor and Empress of Sarantium, was that they were expected.

She was not supposed to realize that, she knew. They wanted her to believe that Leontes's impulsive action in inviting her had taken Valerius and Alixana by surprise here. She was to labor under this misapprehension, feel emboldened, make mistakes. But she had lived in a court all her life and whatever these arrogant easterners might believe about the Antae in Batiara, there were as many similarities as there were differences between her own palace complex in Varena and the Imperial Precinct here.

And the charioteers.

(T)hen he saw the blood.

"Hello there. Have a difficult morning?" Scortius said easily. He didn't reach for the helmet.

Taras cleared his throat. "I . . . didn't do very well. I can't seem to—"

"He did just fine!" said Astorgus, coming up. "What the fuck are you doing here?"

Scortius smiled at him. "Fair question. No good answer." ...

"I . . . stay First?" Taras mumbled.

"Have to. I may not be able to go seven laps."

"Fuck that. Your doctor knows you are here?" Astorgus asked.

"As it happens, he does."

"What? He . . . allowed this?"

"Hardly. He's disowned me. Said he takes no responsibility if I die out here."

"Oh, good," said Astorgus. "Should I?"

Mind you, in this book the moments of levity are there, but the moments are sorrow are more. And the sorrows and grief come less from the deaths (for there are deaths) but from an event, foreshadowed, but still completely unexpected.

I think one of the things I love most about this story is that although the number of characters are almost overwhelming at the start of the story, one comes quickly to know these individuals, and care what happens to them.

Not just the major characters, like Crispin and the Emperor and Empress, but the characters who seem only minor–the traded charioteer, the cook and his helper.

It is these characters and their parts in telling the story that give the tale so much depth and feeling, that make this story–all the stories written by Guy Gavriel Kay, so utterly marvelous.

Published by Roc


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."


"That too." 

January 2005 | Not Rated

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.

Shen Tai has spent two years of his mourning period for his father burying the dead of Kuala Nor.

But for General Shen Gao, the memory of the fighting here had been, until he'd died two years ago, a source of pride and sorrow intermingled, marking him forever after.

Too many men had lost their lives for a lake on the border of nowhere, one that would not, in the event, be held by either empire.

Shan is quickly supported by soldiers from both sides, who bring him supplies and help him so survive.

He'd tried to stop this, but hadn't come close to persuading anyone, and eventually he'd understood: it wasn't about kindness to the madman, or even entirely about besting each other. The less time he spent on food, firewood, maintaining the cabin, the more he could devote to his task, which no one had ever done before, and which seemed— once they'd accepted why he was here— to matter to the Tagurans as much as to his own people.

You can see why that might stick with one.

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.

And so many parts of the story are heartbreaking, just as in real life.

The poet was a quiet, comforting presence. It felt illicit, somehow, to take comfort in anything tonight.

Were two years any time at all?

For human beings they were. Two years could change the world. For stones, for trees growing leaves in spring, dropping them in autumn, two years were inconsequential. A stone in a pond makes ripples, the ripples are gone, nothing remains.

As I said, this is not a book to be gupled down as a distraction. It is something to be read and savored. For me, these

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.

Published by Ace

River of Stars (2013)

First, this cover is gorgeous. The picture links to a large version of the cover and NOT the book at Amazon. The link to Amazon is the title text (if you'd like to help me earn bits of a penny.)

Like all his work, this is an immense, epic story, looking back upon a decisive time and the men and women who shaped that time and those events. It also has a distinctly Chinese tone, from the names, to the customs and folklore, to the way the story unfolds.

There are so many stories, she thinks, and most of them end up lost.

But this, of course, is Guy Gavriel Kay, so although it feels like it could have been set in our past, our history, it wasn't.

And as with Guy Gavriel Kay's writing, there are so many lines that made me stop, because they expressed a truth so simply.

Sometimes things uprooted cannot be restored.

(T)he safe is not found ahead of the people leading them to the future, he comes along after, picking up treasures that have been lost or left behind.

Sometimes you set events in motion, like a river, and if it flooded, or grew engorged…

The world didn't allow you clean, clear judgements very often.

So very many lines that are worth considering on their own.

However, let me be clear, I finished this book and my first thought was, "What? NO!"

I was reminded very much of the ending of "The Princess Bride." The book, that is, not the movie.

‘And they lived happily ever after,' my father said.

‘Wow,' I said. He looked at me.

‘You're not pleased?'

‘No, no, it's just, it came so quick, the ending, it surprised me. I thought there'd be a little more, is all. I mean, was the pirate ship waiting or was that just a rumor like it said?'

‘Complain to Mr. Morgenstern. "And they lived happily ever after" is how it ends.'

The truth was, my father was fibbing. I spent my whole life thinking it ended that way, up until I did this abridgement. Then I glanced at the last page. This is how Morgenstern ends it.


BUTTERCUP LOOKED AT him. "Oh my Westley, so do I."

From behind them suddenly, closer than they had imagined, they could hear the roar of Humperdinck: "Stop them! Cut them off!" They were, admittedly, startled, but there was no reason for worry: they were on the fastest horses in the kingdom, and the lead was already theirs.

However, this was before Inigo's wound reopened, and Westley relapsed again, and Fezzik took the wrong turn, and Buttercup's horse threw a shoe. And the night behind them was filled with the crescendoing sound of pursuit….

Goldman, William The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure

The ending of River of Stars put me very much in the mind of that passage, so keep that in mind as you read. Though I did mention that the story unfolded in a way that very much felt Chinese.

Of course, I was also reminded of the discussion between Garak and Dr Bashir in The Wire on Cardassian literature. Sometimes cultural differences are most start when it comes to story telling, and a story that follows the norms of one culture can be somewhat alien to readers of another culture.

But don't think I didn't enjoy this story–I did. And to be honest, I saw the tone of the ending coming and wasn't surprised. It's just that perhaps I've been reading too much romance recently, and have come to expect certain things from my endings that I hadn't previously.

Regardless, this is an amazing book, although I'll admit that it took me awhile, and reading on the Kindle with "X-Ray" made it much much easier to keep track of the characters.

Published by Berkley