A Song for Arbonne. And that's a good thing. I'd never get anything done if I went through what I went through with this one every time I sat down to read.
The struggle, incidentally, was not to finish it all in one long greedy gulp. I had to force myself to pace myself. I had to sip.
I knew pretty much right away that I'd found another favorite, you see, and I'd only have this first reading once.
A Song for Arbonne is, for me, the perfect kind of fantasy novel, which means in lots of ways it probably barely counts as fantasy. There are no prophecies, no chosen ones, no blatant manipulation by gods or immortals or wizards. There's barely any magic, and a reader can pretty much choose to ignore as coincidental or at least as a matter of interpretation what magic there is.
What's there in place of all those tiresome tropes is absolutely top-notch character drama in a world similar to our own (except in that it has two moons, one of which shines a beautiful blue in the night sky), in a period that might more or less equate to our twelfth century. The known world consists of six nations, more or less versions of regions of Europe, with the titular Arbonne pretty clearly based on Eleanor's Aquitaine, a chivalric culture of troubadours and courtly love but one in which women can actually wield political power and inherit property and you can already see a part of why I loved this book so; Kay obviously did a lot of thinking about how this could work. The central fact of this culture is that it reveres a goddess, Rian as the equal of the world's war god, Corannos, so it follows that mortal women should also be treated as equals -- at least in Arbonne's high culture/ruling classes, which are all we get to see here.
This idyllic land is uneasy neighbors with a much more traditional fantasy kingdom, Gorhaut, a male-driven culture given to sneering at "woman-ruled Arbonne", who revere Corannos only, and who have, as this novel gets into gear, recently concluded fifty years of border war with another country by ceding over a huge chunk of territory in exchange for a lot of money, thus displacing a huge chunk of Gorhaut's population and leading all eyes to look south to the ripe-for-the-taking fertility and ports of Arbonne.
But it's the personalities of the figures involved that truly matter. I'm not going to spoil those here, except to say that a lot of the country's fate comes down to the unfortunate choice made a generation ago by a headstrong woman who was married to a duke and cuckholded him with a troubador who later on became a duke himself, leaving a legacy of hatred that threatens to weaken Arbonne fatally. Good thing the country is ruled by a devastatingly astute and strong women (who happens to be the headstrong woman's mother) -- and that a mysterious man from Gorhaut has appeared on the scene, introducing a whole new set of consequences (and daddy issues).
Every single character matters. Every single arc matters. Everything is given its due. The construction of the narrative is flawless. The writing is nearly flawless -- like many, I found myself annoyed by the occasional slip into present tense to, I guess, heighten the drama of some scenes, usually involving the mysterious man's family in Gorhaut, but even there the prose was gorgeous.
Now I've just got to struggle with the urge to binge-read the rest of Kay's stuff. Wish me luck.