Most of the time after I finish reading a book, I put it in one of two categories: keep and toss. Most books end up in the toss (in actuality donated to Good Will or Salvation Army or anyone else), but a few… a very rare few end up in the keep pile. Additionally, nowadays I get most of my books electronically due to space, cost, and ease. Yet one author has moved me so much that I have bought hardcover and softcover AND ebook versions of his novels. Let me introduce you to one of my favorite authors, Guy Gavriel Kay.
Guy Gavriel Kay is a Canadian author, poet, lawyer and all around brilliant person. Maybe it’s because he’s Canadian. Maybe it’s because he helped finish J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Simarilion. Or maybe it’s because his novels and poetry are so damned beautiful that I cry every time I read them. Let me repeat that: EVERY TIME.
Now, you might not realize this, but as someone who reads voraciously, I rarely read the same book twice. Most books aren’t worth the effort. Some books I’ve had to read more than once because I was teaching them. Some books I will never read again because I had to teach them. But Guy Gavriel Kay’s books touched something so powerful within me that I will always return to them as the measure against which all books must be weighed.
One of the things I love best about GGK’s books are that they’re all set in pseudo-historical places. What that means is he meticulously researches a period and location in history, delves into the cultures of the people living in that locale, and then makes them over into new, fictionalized settings and characters. If you’re a student of history, you’ll always be able to tell from whence he draws his inspiration. If you’re not, you’ll become one so that the experience becomes richer.
The first book of his that I read was Tigana. Tigana is set in an Italianate region. City states have been at war with each other, a powerful magician are trying to conquer and unite the peninsula, and a small band of defenders fights to hold on to their land. The magician’s son is killed and in his grief, the magician curses the country of Tigana to be stricken from the memory of everyone except those who were born there. The country is re-named in all historical documents. The word “Tigana” can’t even be heard by anyone else, except the native-born. The memory of Tigana: it’s beauty, it’s artistry, it’s passion, it’s beautiful people has been erased.
Into this plot we have characters with whom Kay has vested such passion and power that you can’t help but fall in love with them. They take the reader on a journey that few have ever undergone; one to restore liberty to a country enslaved by the grief of one man. Kay writes in the 10th anniversary edition that, “Tigana is in good part a novel about memory: the necessity of it, in cultural terms, and the dangers that come when it is too intense. Scelto’s decision at the end of the novel is a reflection of that, and so is the George Seferis passage that served as one of my epigraphs. So, accepting that this is precarious terrain – an author’s memories of a book about remembering – what does that imply, more than a decade after the writing?”
Rather than continuing to extoll the virtues of Tigana, I will beg you to read it and judge for yourself. I will tell you that I have read this book at least 5 times. And every time I read it, I cry. That is how moving this book is.
Kay also made me cry with the Fionavar Tapestry Trilogy (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road). This epic high-fantasy trilogy begins in Toronto where five friends attending a lecture are whisked away to an alternate world by a Gandalf-esque character. Kay admits freely that this trilogy was influenced by Tolkien, but he doesn’t get bogged down in five-page long poetry or songs in Elvish. Like Tolkien, GGK’s characters are lovable. The Torontoans are so very human, each with a certain special otherness. Upon their arrival in Fionavar, the reader discovers that Fionavar is the first world from which all others sprang.
One of the things that drew me most to the Fionavar tapestry, besides the complexity of his characters and intricacies of plot, was the ties to Celtic and Arthurian folklore. Once upon a time I was a Medievalist and anything with a medieval bent always captures my attention. Kay is so creative however, that he doesn’t just wham you over the head with Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot. Fionavar is embroiled in the greatest conflict between good and evil.
Like Tolkien, there are several quests throughout the novels. Each Toronto native becomes intrinsically involved in the developing future of Fionavar. For as Fionavar goes, so go the rest of the worlds. And yes, I cry every time I read this trilogy as well. Note, trilogy. That means I’ve re-read the same three books at least three or four times. I’d say that I was due for another read, but I want to re-read A Song for Arbonne first, I think.
By the time A Song for Arbonne was published, I was in love with GGK as an author. Anything the man writes, I will buy. I know that I will be transported to a world that’s familiar and strange at the same time. I know that I will meet characters with whom I will fall in love. A Song for Arbonne was no exception. Reminiscent of France’s era of Courtly Love and troubadours, A Song for Arbonne gives us a tale of two nations at war and idealistically at odds: Arbonne, ruled by women and the court of love versus Gorhaut, a militaristic nation ruled by a misogynist. I haven’t read this one as many times as Fionavar or Tigana, but I’m due for a re-visit.
Hopefully I’ve intrigued you enough to take a visit into Guy Gavriel Kay’s beautifully drawn landscapes. His other novels are no less powerful, no less grand in scope. I would end up writing a 20 page paper just trying to discuss them all. Heck, each one is worthy of scholarly papers (and have had them written). I’d love to teach a course on Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels. Talk about substance, dialogue, and everything you want in characters… Just stunning.
For more information on Guy Gavriel Kay, please visit his website above or Bright Weavings, the authorized website on his works.