I really wanted to give this five stars. In many ways it was a perfect book - a great story of a country fighting for its very survival, some truly compelling and heroic characters, emotional resonance and an ending that was true to all of those elements and entirely fitting. And to start with, yes, I got swept up in it and in Kay’s wonderful writing. But somewhere around the midpoint it got sticky for me. It was just too over-the-top melodramatic in the worst kind of eye-rolling way. I did my best, but maybe I was just in the wrong mood for it, because it was all a bit much.
I’ve only read two of Kay’s other books, ‘Tigana’ and ‘The Lions of al-Rassan’, but that’s enough to put him up there with my favourite authors. However, they’re not light reading, with their nuanced world building, deeply compelling characters and emotional intensity, so I tend to keep them for a time when I have the leisure to savour them. Kay favours settings which are only lightly disguised real-world historical places, and this is no exception, being analogous to medieval southern Europe. Arbonne is a place of troubadours singing of courtly love for unattainable married women, and is ruled by a woman, in contrast to northern Gorhaut, a deeply unpleasant patriarchal society.
Although this is clearly a fantasy world, and the real world inspiration never intruded, there isn’t much magic involved; it’s there, and very obviously so, but it’s added to the mixture with a very light hand. One plus point: the author’s somewhat overwrought writing style can be a bit much in some contexts, but it actually works well in this setting, and enhances the atmosphere.
Of the characters, I loved both Blaise and Bertran, and Valery too. They don’t feel like particularly original characters, but they worked for me. In fact, there were a surprising number of these complicated, deep-thinking men - macho warriors who are also in touch with their feminine side. The women have their good points, and they are all strong, independent-minded and sensible, if teetering a little on the edge of fearsome, sometimes, especially the goddess’s high priestess, who can be seriously spooky. But really, these families are so dysfunctional, they make the average soap characters look like paragons of normality. I found it quite hard to believe that Blaise would turn out so rational and honourable, given the father and brother he was blessed with. But then Ademar, the northern king, is the opposite - the weak, foolish and dissolute son of an honourable father.
The plot is one of those teetering-on-the-cusp-of-war affairs. You know it’s going to happen and all the moves are laid out well ahead of time, so it isn’t a surprise, although there are lots of twists and turns along the way. Many of the twists are excellent - dramatic, exciting, unpredictable and not at all contrived. And some of them just fall off a cliff into grandiose melodrama, and become almost eye-rollingly bad. Kay’s writing rescues things from complete idiocy, but really, sometimes I just despair of him. The story’s got a driving pace of its own, there’s no need for the totally over-the-top flourishes. I’m thinking here of Blaise being tied to the bed by Lucianna, about to be gutted by the Arimondan, and one by one major characters leap out from behind the arras to say ‘wait a moment...!’. And then Blaise challenges the guy to a duel, for heaven’s sake! Talk about stupidly contrived plot twists. As if the hero’s going to die at this point anyway... grumble, grumble. Pah!
Some minor quibbles. Firstly, all the main characters are beautiful, intelligent, witty and talented, not to mention expert lovers. And heroic and honourable and politically astute. Real life isn’t devoid of such striking people, of course, but living, as I do, in a country which still has a hereditary monarchy, I can vouch for the fact that centuries of aristocratic inbreeding is no guarantee of beauty, intelligence or even sanity. Quite the reverse. You might get the odd example, but an entire bookful is stretching credibility. But this is fantasy, so the incredible is (just about) allowed. And in contrast, the villains are stupid or evil or incompetent or all of the above.
Secondly, much of the book hinges on the two very different cultures of Arbonne and Gorhaut. Trouble is, even though Arbonne has a female ruler, worships a goddess alongside a male god and appears to treat women in a deeply respectful, not to say adoring, way, it’s still fundamentally patriarchal. The countess rules only because the count, her husband, has died. There’s still the burning desire for a son and heir. Women are still married off for pragmatic reasons, that is, to produce said son and heir. Men still drive many of the political decisions. Setting women on a romantic pedestal serves only to keep them in their place (in bed, mostly). Yes, they have more freedom and a certain amount of real power, but it’s not exactly an equal society. It’s almost as if, even when he’s trying his damnedest to describe a society where women are equal, yet still different from men, somehow the author can’t quite leave behind the inherent inequalities of our own society. Maybe he thinks that’s really the natural order of the world, or he simply can’t imagine anything different, I don’t know. And the end result is that, in order to make a strong contrast, Gorhaut has to be a deeply unpleasant society which keeps women subservient both by law and by brutality. A more subtle contrast would have been more effective, I think. Or maybe I’m just wearing my grumpy feminist hat today.
I think Kay just about gets away with this, by showing towards the end the real power of women, in both the political and personal spheres, and also their strength of character. So although the ending is, inevitably, a mega-battle between large numbers of men with swords, Kay shows how the women work behind the scenes in more subtle but equally important ways. The ending was heavy on the symbolism and the grand gestures and the clever twists, but in this kind of book, that’s par for the course and entirely proper. So overall a great book that was just a little too melodramatic for me, so four stars. A very, very good four stars.