Guy Gavriel Kay

Review: A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay

Book review of Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne

A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel KayI’ve read Tigana, and it was an absolutely wonderful experience. Unfortunately, I read it before I started Fantasy Book News, so I don’t have a review to share my thoughts on one of Guy Gavriel Kay’s other novels. Luckily, with A Song for Arbonne, Kay delivers another real treat.

First and foremost, as the name implies, A Song for Arbonne places much emphasis on music. It is this quality that reminded me of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, and his heavy use of music in that series. A Song for Arbonne actually places a large emphasis on art as a whole, with music, poetry, and theater all making appearances in this novel. Music in particular is viewed by the characters in Kay’s world as being the highest form of expression, which Kay eloquently communicates in this passage:

One poet I know has gone so far as to say that everything men do today, everything that happens, whether of glory or beauty or pain, is merely to provide the matter of songs for those who come after us. Our lives are lived to become their music.

The characters that inhabit Arbonne and the surrounding territories are simply majestic. Blaise is a man who has turned his back on his father, his country, and attempted to find solace in another land. He cannot escape his past however, and the novel focuses on his realization of this fact. We see deception among the entire cast, especially between the sexes, with men and women alike appearing in locales and situations that one may frown upon. Another storyline follows the flight of Blaise’s sister-in-law from her country, carrying the male child who is potentially next in line to the throne in her womb. These are only samples of a few of the many intricate stories Kay crafts in A Song for Arbonne, there are many, and they are richly intertwined. While the plots are delicious, Kay’s characterization is what shines in A Song for Arbonne. Here you will find real people, with the same desires and problems that we face in our world. The characterization is nothing short of masterful.

Also in the vein of masterful is Kay’s ability to paint a scene with words. Rather than try to describe his mastery of description myself, I think a sample would serve best:

There was a fireplace, not lit. Candles in scones on the walls and on tables placed around a richly furnished and carpeted room done in shades of dark blue and gold. Wine on one table, he saw, goblets beside a flask. Two, no, three doorways opening to inner rooms, a pair of very deep, high-backed chairs facing the fire. The windows on the outer wall were open to the breeze; Blaise could hear noises of revelry from below. There was a familiar, hard bitterness in him now, and a curiosity he could not deny, and a third thing, like the quickening hammer of a pulse, beneath both of these.

Another trademark of Kay’s novels, as I’m coming to learn, is his liberal use of words that remind me of my grade school vocab list. I found it so entertaining that I had to jot them down when I came across them, and here is a sampling of the more than 50 words that you can learn while reading a novel by an author as highly skilled with the English language as Kay:

A Song for Arbonne Vocab Checklist
admonition coruscating inexorable penchant
admonitory depredations inimically perfidy
aggrieved diaphanous inneffably phlegmatic
ambivalent diffidence innocuous profligate
assiduously effontery interdicted racoux
assuaged equanimity itinerant rapacious
audrade escutcheon licentious recalcitrant
calamitous excoriation liquescent sardonic
capricious fastidiousness malediction stentorian
celerity fatuous mellifluous trammeling
choleric garrulous obdurate tremulous
convivality indefatigable obeisance

In addition to the fantastic world building, the truly authentic characterization, descriptive scenes that will whet your appetite, and the benefit of expanding your language skills that all come with A Song for Arbonne, Kay still manages to work in some of the truly more magical elements of fantasy, those rare moments where a fantasy novel comments on culture in terms general enough to work within the fantasy novel as well as our real world:

Courage and skill and the rightness of a cause were sometimes not enough. They were seldom enough, he thought, tasting that truth like poison in his mouth: Corranos and Rian had shaped a world in which this was so.

There are so many more shining elements in A Song for Arbonne that I would like to impart, but I fear this review would start to turn into a novel itself, so I can only leave my recommendation. And for A Song for Arbonne, that is my highest, the grade I’ve only in the past reserved for A Game of Thrones and Elantris, a full 10 out of 10 stars. A Song for Arbonne is a shining moment in epic fantasy literature, and should be used as an example for years to come as the grade of quality the genre has the potential to offer.

You can purchase A Song for Arbonne over at

Fantasy Book News Ratings

  • Overall: 10 out of 10
  • Plot Originality
  • Setting Development
  • Characterization
  • Dialog
  • Pace

Fan Ratings

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