Cover painting by David Jermann.
It’s been a while since I read a fantasy novel by Guy Gavriel Kay, and I’d forgotten how good he is. The setting is essentially medieval western Europe, with countries similar to France, Spain, Germany, etc., though with just enough differences to make it fantasy. The book has a remarkable amount of symmetry. First there are opposing belief systems. Arbonne, the France-like country is the home of courtly love, and their main worship is to a female deity and female preistesses. Gorhaut, the Germany-like country to their north follows the more common male-deity worship and warlike attitude. They think Arbonne is soft and sissy to be ruled by women. The ruler of Arbonne is an elderly woman, the ruler of Gorhaut a young male with ideas about invading Arbonne and conquering it. His chief advisor is the patriarch of their religion who eggs him on in this plan, as he dreams of destroying the goddess of Arbonne and her priestesses.
That’s just backdrop. The main characters are drawn from all the classes of Arbonne, from traveling musicians and swords-for-hire to important dukes and sons of kings. There is plenty of intrigue, romance and action, and the stories of the main characters, who at first seem to have little or no connection to each other, gradually intertwine and form a rich tapestry of human life that is fascinating to read. There are battles, tournaments, midnight raids, assignations, songs and poetry, political intrigues, smoldering affairs, assassinations, carnivals, death marches, duels, dalliances, drinking, deadly poisons, and just enough magic to make things interesting without it being an easy solution to problems. The book is divided into four sections named for the seasons, another nice piece of symmetry, and the year the main story takes place is one that will forever change this world. If you’re a fan of “Game of Thrones,” here’s a book that handles some of the same material equally well without the soul-crushing cruelty and unhappy endings for many of the characters, though certainly there’s some of that too.
Really well done and highly recommended.