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Favorite fantasy authors: Guy Gavriel Kay
Canadian native Guy Gavriel Kay is a relative newcomer to fantasy,
but I'm very taken with his work. Like
R.A. MacAvoy, he doesn't hit you over
the head with magical pyrotechnics---the people and their changes
are the center of the story.
The supernatural elements in his work are generally very
subtle when they show up at all, considerably less than the
average Stephen King novel. So why is Kay banned to the F&SF
Kay's first notable achievement was working on the posthumous
publication of J.R.R. Tolkien's Silmarillion in
collaboration with Tolkien's son Christopher. Despite this deep
immersion in the Tolkien mythos, I give Kay a very low ``Tolkien
Number'' of 2. Kay's work resembles Tolkien's work very little in
atmosphere. The style is not the ponderous, mythic style of
Tolkien but a very natural, unobtrusive modern fiction style.
The scenery is well-painted, and his characters really breathe
Here is his entire output as of this writing, with the most
recent works first.
- Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors
comprise the “Sarantine Mosaic” series. This is
some of the best writing I've seen in decades in any genre.
Historical fiction set in a slightly
parallel world: the locale is very much like medieval Byzantium,
and the maps in the endpapers of the second book strongly resemble
the Mediterranean, but the planet has two moons, and the city is
called Sarantium. This one has it all: deeply real and deeply
realized characters, truly Byzantine plotting, and so many
moments that made me just sigh with pleasure at the subtlety
and multi-layered resonances of the writing. Many reflections
on the interactions among love, politics, religion, and war, and
some thrilling depictions of chariot racing.
- With Lions of Al-Rassan, Kay continues his astonishing
growth as a writer of immense power and finesse. The setting is a
thinly fictionalized Iberia during the Middle Ages, and it doesn't
take long to decode the three major religions (Christendom, Islam,
and Judaism). For all that those factions are officially opposed,
there are certainly a lot of people who find themselves working
in the camp of the enemies of their native faith.
This situation makes for some
useful reflections on the nature of loyalty and faith versus
emotional ties, not to mention
contractual obligations. An incredibly engaging story, difficult
to put down. Now I'm keen to read more of the real history of
the time when the Moors dwelt in Iberia.
- A song for Arbonne is another work with a combination
of a fascinating atmosphere with a tangled skein of gut-wrenching human
stories. The setting is the heyday of the troubadour and courtly
love, with a nice evocation of the interaction between high art
and politics, and those rare characters who are at home with both.
Not just escapism, I think it has something to tell us about the
best ways to live. By the way, this is not a book for children.
The scene introducing the king of the bad guys, for example, features
some pretty decadent behavior. Overall, I liked the book even better
than Tigana: more gripping, stronger and more memorable
- Tigana was the first Kay I read and it immediately
made a convert of me. The feel reminds me a bit of E.R. Eddings
or Lord Dunsany---drafty, uncomfortable old castles, strife on
the battlefield. One of the things I like most about this book
and Kay in general is the lack of a Manichean world view: instead
of characters that belong pretty clearly to the camps of Good and
Evil, the characters in Tigana are more like rats in a flood---there
are lots of malign influences around, and a few friends and allies,
but it's not so much of a moral struggle as just a struggle to say
alive. Still, the actions of some characters are inspiring as
they rise above the muck.
- The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy is published in
The summer tree,
The wandering fire, and
The darkest road. I haven't read them. My many
friends who like Kay's writing say this is his weakest and
most derivative work, but still much better than most writers'
Next: Favorite fantasy authors: Gene Wolfe
See also: Shipman's reading list: fantasy and ``soft SF''
Previous: Shipman's favorite short shorts
John W. Shipman,
Last updated: 2005/10/14 05:00:20