Monday, November 11, 2013

Arbonne, a Land Where Women Rule

A Song For Arbonne
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Published 1992
511 Pages
Historical Fantasy

Troubadours and their singers, called joglars,
are very popular throughout Arbonne.
When I began this blog and named it "Worlds Worth Visiting," I intended it as a travel guide through media of all ages, past and present, for those seeking a particular and, I fear, increasingly rare type of experience. Though it may seem strange for someone to be "reviewing" a 21 year old book, I'm doing just that with A Song For Arbonne, because it is such a great example of a world worth visiting: a brilliantly crafted setting, complex characters, a sense of epic grandeur and a story that completely immerses the reader from beginning to end. It is a romantic novel (though not in any way a "romance novel") that, though set in a fictional world, is strongly influenced by the traditions of courtly love, and the troubadour culture of the middle ages.

In A Song for Arbonne, the land of "woman-ruled" Arbonne is so beautiful and idyllic that it becomes like a character–one for whom I felt great sympathy. On more than one occasion, I felt my heart in my throat, wondering what was to become of her. It's not so much that I'm a fangirl for courtly love tales, but that Kay peeled back the curtain and revealed the heart of what is genuinely beautiful about a world that would value such ideals.

Women rule in Arbonne, a condition which
their neighbors the he-man-woman-haters club
to the north find intolerable.
Arbonne is a world of subtle magic and intrigue, with great emphasis on culture and history. The story is told from the perspective of a male mercenary from a neighboring country where women are treated like dirt. This perspective throws the observations he makes about Arbonne into even sharper relief, giving Arbonne an even shinier, brighter quality than it might have had if it had been described by a native of Arbonne. We truly feel like we are "visitors in an unholy (or holy) land" when viewing Arbonne through Blaise's eyes. His journey of understanding, and ultimately appreciating this more feminine world coincides with a war brought down upon the Arbonnais by his own people.

The writing style matches the theme: very descriptive, romantic, almost poetic. This author can put together some of the longest sentences that I've ever read, but they all seem to work and did not cause any speedbumps for me in the progress of the story. This is a special talent, making description not only feel relevant, but also evocative. It also did not feel like over-description. I would call it "pleasantly over-the-top", just like the Arbonnais themselves.

A Song For Arbonne might appeal to you if you enjoyed…

The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
I think Arbonne would appeal to Avalon fans not only for the beautifully crafted world, researched with painstaking attention to detail, but also for the theme of the sacred feminine, threatened by an emerging patriarchal dominance. Really, any fan of Arthurian legend will probably enjoy it, for the inspired feeling of high culture that Arbonne reflects. It reminded me of Camelot in many ways.

A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin
Though it is a much "softer" type of story than G.R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series (aka Game of Thrones on HBO), I think it might appeal to readers with similar sensibilities. There is a great deal of interpersonal and "courtly" intrigue here, but more attention is paid to the inner landscape of the characters. Though there are some notable villains, the heroes are just as interesting. There is a strong sense of hope and honor among certain people you meet in the story. Though I have enjoyed the Song of Ice and Fire, I find it depressing at times, and grow numb periodically from the endless violence. Arbonne, though not entirely free of violence, is a much lovelier and livelier place in general, where I ultimately felt more invested in the outcome of the story.


Personally, I enjoyed my stay in Arbonne immensely, and give it a Worth Visiting Score of 8/10, unfortunately knocking off two points only because I felt like it ended rather abruptly and left me wondering about Blaise and the other characters I had come to love. Oddly, it ended with the thoughts and reflections of a completely new character, one that I did not care about as much. Perhaps a sequel might be in order? I, for one, would certainly book passage for a return voyage!

Have you been to Arbonne? What were your impressions of this romantic land?