Guy Gavriel Kay says that as a teenager in Winnipeg, he wanted to play right wing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. And he recalls that he also wanted to follow in Clarence Darrow’s famous legal footsteps. Kay, 38, did not end up in the NHL or in a courtroom, although he was called to the bar and still plays gym hockey every Sunday in Toronto with a gang of ex-Winnipeg friends. Instead, his third dream was the one he played out: he grew up to be a full-time bestselling writer. Kay’s latest novel, A Song for Arbonne, is likely to match or surpass the generous welcome given his first four books, The Fionavar Tapestry (1984 to 1986), a high-fantasy trilogy, and the single-volume 77gana (1990). All four books were published in Canada, the United States and Britain, then translated into eight languages. The trilogy is now in its ninth printing in Britain and so far, among other honors, Kay has won two coveted Auroras for best English-language speculative fiction. A Song for Arbonne (Penguin, $25.99), meanwhile, occupied a niche on several best-seller lists, including Maclean ’s, in recent months.
For Kay, the high-sticking battles of hockey and the charged drama of criminal courts are now on the sidelines. But, up in the third-floor office of the home that he shares with his consultant wife, Laura, and their twoyear-old son, Samuel, Kay creates fictional realms where warriors raise their swords in battle and powerful figures make literally earth-shattering judgments. And although he does not practise law, Kay has maintained a connection with the legal world through 12 years of writing for the popular CBC radio and television series, The Scales of Justice, which dramatizes famous Canadian legal cases.
Kay’s link to the program was through its host, Toronto criminal lawyer Edward Greenspan, who became a friend after Kay articled at his firm. Kay, who still writes for the TV program, says that it allows him to indulge his taste for high drama, a quality that also marks his fiction. “I proudly acknowledge my sense of the operatic and theatrical,” he told Maclean ’s. “I want to give the readers that page-turning energy.” Kay’s passport to the multiple universes of fantasy was stamped by a fortuitous meeting
with Christopher Tolkien, the son of the grand master of fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien, who wrote The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit. The younger Tolkien invited Kay, then a 20year-old University of Manitoba philosophy student, to Oxford University to work with him on the posthumous publication of some of his
father’s material. The result was The Silmarillion, a compilation of the elder Tolkien’s writings about his fantasy universe, Middle Earth, which was published in 1977. “The public didn’t have any idea of who I was, except for the dyed-in-the-wool Tolkien junkies,” said Kay. “But the industry did, because The Silmarillion was a monstrous success.”
Appalled by the unimaginative Tolkien clones clogging fantasy shelves, Kay later set himself the challenge of rescuing the form from
its post-Tolkien lows. The Fionavar Tapestry was a stunning debut, a high-fantasy, highpowered epic that became an instant classic among the sword-and-sorcery set. With 77gana, Kay retained the trilogy’s gripping pace, fleshed-out characters and life-and-death dilemmas. But he made a striking departure from his previous novels when he placed the story in a world reminiscent of Renaissance Italy, instead of building a world from scratch. Tigana was based on months of careful research and was written in Tuscany, part of the author’s habit of writing his books abroad (he wrote two of the trilogy books in Crete and New Zealand).
Kay describes his process of evoking a recognizable world in which fictional events occur as “history with a twist.” He added: “I’m basing my works on a period, but I’m not writing about that period. I reinterpret it in order to allow for some reflection on how we didn’t have to end up where we are today.” Kay says that the meeting of history and fantasy allows him to reflect on the past without being bound to a known outcome.
A Song for Arbonne, which he researched and wrote during two trips to Provence, is another innovative mixture of make-believe and reality. The real world that he refracts is medieval France, in particular the brief, localized flowering of courtly love and the troubadour movementThe book explores the battle between a culture where men and women are moving towards equality, and a warrior society driven by a fierce, patriarchal religion. In the land of Arbonne, a place of chivalry and gallantry, women and men worship both the goddess and the god. To the north, in Gorhaut, men rule the women and pay tribute only to the god. Conquest is, of course, next on their agenda.
In Kay’s view, the 12th-century code of chivalry was a staggering change in attitudes towards women. “The idea of a woman as someone to be appealed to, someone above you, was an unbelievable step forward in the status of women in Western history,” he said. In real life, the civilization that originated those ideas was swiftly crushed by a Church-sanctioned crusade. Although A Song for Arbonne I echoes that struggle between north~ em and southern cultures, Kay delivers a totally different ending.
Arbonne demonstrates that Kay’s writing style has smoothed out over the past two books, and is now much less likely to spill over into the sometimes overcharged prose of the trilogy. And he remains a master weaver of complex tales. His strong sense of timing, and his ability to describe moments of high drama from several angles keep up the pace until the final, satisfying verdict. With A Song for Arbonne, Kay has once again created the best of all possible worlds.
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