Friday, 1 December 2006

Author Profile: Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay is a Canadian writer of fantasy novels and poetry. He was born in 1954 in Weyburn, Saskatchewan and raised in Winnipeg. In the early 1970s, whilst at the University of Manitoba, he came into contact with Christopher Tolkien, the son and literary executor of the late JRR Tolkien. In 1974 Christopher Tolkien requested Kay's aid in the editing of The Silmarillion, the vast collection of myths and legends that forms the immense backstory to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Kay accepted and spent ten months outside Oxford working on the project. In the 1980s he published his first - and to date only - epic fantasy trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry, which was well-received. Resisting the urge to do a straight sequel, he set about writing a series of 'historical fantasies', books based very closely on a real time and place. This resulted in the book largely acknowledged as his first masterpiece, Tigana, inspired by Renaissance Italy. In Tigana the protagonists are battling for the very heart and soul of their nation, the spirit of which has been crushed in the conflict between two powerful warlords and the name of which has been removed from its people's memories.

Kay followed Tigana with A Song for Arbonne. Inspired by Provence and the south of France, the book is a slightly more traditional fantasy than Tigana, but remains a vital and engaging work, painting the country of Arbonne and its neighbour Gorhaut in vivid detail. There are hints that Arbonne and Tigana are set in the same world (and both may be on the same world, or at least in the same universe, as Fionavar), but Kay eschews traditional worldbuilding, preferring merely to tip the hat between his works.

Kay followed this with the book widely acknowledged as his second masterpiece, The Lions of Al-Rassan, based on Spain during the Reconquista. This book and the three subsequent novels are all set in the same world, a world which is clearly a fantasy version of Europe. Interestingly, these books take place at different parts in history, but as they share little except for some parts of their maps overlapping and some references, the background can safely be ignored. Instead, Al-Rassan's story shines through, combining a love triangle with religious strife against the backdrop of a struggle for power on the peninsula between several groups. The history is rich and the writing elegant and layered.

Kay's next project was The Sarantine Mosaic, a duology based closely around the history of Byzantium (Constantinople). The two books had dark, haunting atmospheres but for me they fell short of his best work and the story felt slight for it to span two novels and over eight hundred pages. Nevetheless, the writing is still as impressive as ever and eagle-eyed viewers will spot references to his earlier work (including the subtle mentions of a man called Ashar, who goes on to found the Asharite faith which plays a major role in Al-Rassan).

Following a poetry collection, Beyond This Dark House, Kay's most recent novel is The Last Light of the Sun, set between the Mosaic and Al-Rassan. This time the setting is England at the time of the Viking invasion and the central character is closely based on King Alfred the Great (he who burned the cakes). Some fans found Sun disappointing, but I enjoyed its setting, storytelling and the nice parallels and contrasts between the various characters.

Kay has moved to pastures new with his forthcoming, newest work, Ysabel. Published here in the UK in March (January for Canada and February for the USA), Ysabel is a modern story employing elements of urban fantasy and myth. Reviews have been extremely positive, some citing it as Kay's best work to date.

In a world dominated by five-book-plus series made up of brick-thick volumes, Kay is a writer who shows that sometimes less is more. His books are extremely pleasent to read, his prose is sparkling and poetic and his characters are engaging.

Home Page
A review of Ysabel courtesy of I Hope I Didn't Just Give Away the Ending.
An interview with Guy Gavriel Kay at OF Blog of the Fallen, conducted on 16 August 2006.

The Fionavar Tapestry
The Summer Tree (1984) ***
The Wandering Fire (1986) - unread
The One Tree (1987) - unread

Tigana (1990) *****
A Song for Arbonne (1993) ****
The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995) *****

The Sarantine Mosaic
Sailing to Sarantium (1998) ****
Lord of Emperors (2000) ***

Beyond This Dark House (2003) - unread
The Last Light of the Sun (2004) ****
Ysabel (2007) - forthcoming


Race said...

Just started Tigana yesterday.
Figured it was about time I read him.

Adam Whitehead said...

Better late than never, certainly. Tigana is probably his best book, although Al-Rassan is up there as well.