A Song For Arbonne - a medieval fantasy of politics, war, and courtly love
To review a book a read 25 years ago would usually require reading the book again. Perhaps the greatest recommendation I can offer for A Song For Arbonne is that 25 years and thousands of books later I remember it well. Arbonne is land of wine, music, and very fine seaports coveted by its landlocked neighbor Gorhaut. Unfortunately for the aging Countess who rules Arbonne the bulk of her armies belongs to her two dukes who have been on the verge of civil war for years. Enter Blaise of Gorhaut, an ordinary mercenary in the employ of one of Arbonne's lesser barons and let the game of thrones begin.
Compared to Tigana, Arbonne has a wider range of characters and viewpoints but they mostly circle around Blaise of Gorhaut. Gorhaut might imagne that woman ruled Arbonne is weak but their spy network at least is competent. So when the disaffected youngest son of the most powerful man in Gorhaut comes to Arbonne they notice. Since the previous king of Gorhaut died Blaise has watched his beloved country rot and the only way he sees to annoy his father is help train Arbonne's forces before Gorhaut invades. But the Countess and her advisors come to him with a desperate plan. As a nobleman and hero of Gorhaut attend an upcoming international tournament. When he takes the field he will declare the King of Gorhaut unfit and that if he succeeds in winning he will raise his banner in challenge for the throne. If he loses, well, he better not lose. The audience includes his current lover, his jealous former lover, and his brother's wife pregnant with his child. And people wonder where George R.R. Martin gets his ideas....
All of Guy Gavriel Kay's books seem to have some element of cultural or religious conflict. A Song for Arbonne frequently deals with women's rights. The country is ruled by a woman and worships a goddess. Even Blaise has difficulty with that until he himself meets the Countess. Troubadors sing love songs and noblemen gain prestige if a song about their wife becomes popular. In contrast women have no voice, and no rights in Gorhaut. They are the property of their father or brother until they are the property of their husband. A man can kill his wife for adultery and no one blames him.
There are political twists and turns, strange priestesses, and of course an enormous climactic battle. Don't get too attached to the characters because this is Guy Gavriel Kay and not everyone gets a happy ending or even lives to the end. That is one of the things I love about his writing, there are highs and lows to the resolutions which makes them feel more meaningful. Of my three favorites, Tigana, A Song For Arbonne, and the Lions of Al-Rassan, I thought Arbonne had the most complex plot, politics, and battle sequence and I highly recommend it for anyone who likes George R.R. Martin, although its not quite as graphic.
For audiobook fans, Euan Morton does the reading and the singing required to deliver a memorable performance.