Saturday, 3 April 2010

Where to Start? - Guy Gavriel Kay

In this second instalment of the Where to Start? series, we look at the work of Canadian fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay.

All of Kay's novels - ten to date - take place in the same universe, but are divided into two broad sub-worlds. However, they are published out of chronological order and are almost entirely made up of stand-alone books. The sole exceptions are his two series, The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy and The Sarantine Mosaic duology. Everything else is stand-alone.

The Fionavar Universe

Kay's first published work was The Fionavar Tapestry, a trilogy in which a group of Canadian university students are transported to the world of Fionavar where a traditional battle between good and evil is underway. The trilogy is noted for an interesting magic system (in which sorcerers use other living beings as sources of magic) but is probably Kay's most 'standard' work.

The core trilogy consists of The Summer Tree (1984), The Wandering Fire (1986) and The Darkest Road (1986). Ysabel (2007) is a stand-alone follow-up to the trilogy set on Earth and focusing on different characters in Provence, but several trilogy characters show up in supporting roles.

Stand-alone works in the Fionavar Universe

Kay's next two novels are stand-alone titles, entitled Tigana (1990) and A Song for Arbonne (1992). They are set in the Fionavar universe but some very minor references and allusions aside such connections are purely cosmetic. Indeed, Tigana is oftern referenced as the best book to start with Kay with.

The Alternate Earth books

Kay's remaining books are all set on the same planet, a lightly fantasised version of our Earth in several different time periods and locations. Technically this alt-Earth is also located in the Fionavar universe, but again some minor references aside this is again completely irrelevant. The alt-Earth books are all independent of one another and do not require knowledge of the others to enjoy one, with the sole exception that the two books of the Sarantine Mosaic duology need to be read in order.

In publication order with a note on their historical inspirations, these books are as follows:

  • The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995) - Andalusian Spain during the time of El Cid (11th Century).
  • The Sarantine Mosaic: Sailing to Sarantium (1998) & Lord of Emperors (2000) - Byzantium at the time of Justinian I (6th Century).
  • The Last Light of the Sun (2004) - Saxon England at the time of Alfred the Great (9th Century).
  • Under Heaven (2010) - Tang Dynasty China during the An Shi Rebellion (8th Century).


Kay's work can be approached from several entry points. The first book in The Fionavar Tapestry, The Summer Tree is an obvious choice, although Tigana is often cited as a stronger first book. The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Last Light of the Sun, Sailing to Sarantium and Under Heaven can all be approached as other first books as well. In conclusion Kay is an author whose body of work can appear tricky to get into due to the inter-connectedness of the books, but in practice most of these connections are so slight as to be invisible, and with the obvious exception of the multi-volume works his books can be read in any order.

I have now read Under Heaven since assembling this list and there are some anomalous elements in it. It still appears to take place in the Alt-Earth, and its China analogue (Khitai) is mentioned in the other Alt-Earth books. However, at one point a character mentions how there is only one moon when he talks about having a dream of a world with three. The Alt-Earth seen in The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Last Light of the Sun is noted as having three moons. This seems to place Under Heaven in a sort of parallel universe to the Alt-Earth, whilst still retaining much of its layout. This is odd, but, that one reference aside, it can be read and enjoyed either as a complete stand-alone or as part of the Alt-Earth books with no problem.


T.S. Bazelli said...

He's one of my absolute favorites. I started out with the Fionovar Tapestry, and moved on to the rest. I always liked how the books interrelate so subtly, but you probably wouldn't realize it or miss it if you didn't start with his first book. Now I really need to get my hands on Under Heaven.

Anonymous said...

I didn't enjoy the Fionavar Tapestry as much as I was assured I would by friends, but maybe having ready Tigana, A Song for Arbonne and The Lions of Al Rassan first spoilt that. The Tapestry just can't compare to those.

And interesting about settings. I always assumned A Song for Arbonne and The Lions of Al Rassan were set in the same world. Not sure why, but a quick check of the maps in the paperbacks tells me I weas wrong.

Tarien Cole said...

I have to agree with the consensus that the only thing wrong with starting to read Kay with "Tigana" is it might spoil you for the rest of his books, much like reading Gemmell's "Legend" first.

Not that Kay doesn't have lots of brilliant stuff. But Tigana is head and shoulders about the rest.

Longasc said...

For some reason I have not read Tigana yet, but almost all of the other books.

I did not enjoy "Last Light of the Sun" that much and have not read "Under Heaven" yet.

I have a little crush on Empress Theodora, so this is probably why I enjoyed The Sarantine Mosaic so much.

Paul D said...

I had no idea that Song and Tigana were in the Fionavar Universe

Patrick said...

Oddly enough, I felt that the Fionavar Tapestry was Kay's weakest work. I'd start with Tigana or The Lions of Al-Rassan, just because I want people to fall in love with GGK's novels from the get-go! Then move on to the Sarantine Mosaic and A Song for Arbonne.

Yet take it from me: Under Heaven is the best one yet!=)

Gabriele Campbell said...

Anon, I thought A Song for Arbonne was set in the same alternate Europe as Lions, the Sarantium books and Last Light of the Sun as well. Tigana gave me a somewhat different vibe - never read the Fionovar books because I don't like Gate Fantasies (never read Narnia, either, for that reason).

Victoria said...

This man is my second favourite author. Everything he writes, for me at least, is gold. I mean, there's a reason his work has been translated into over 24 languages.

Honestly, I think that Tigana is one of Kay's weakest novels. There were a few plot threads in there that had no resolution. I always urge people to read A Song for Arbonne and The Lions of Al-Rassan first.

Adam Whitehead said...

ARBONNE is set in a different world (the map is completely differents, with Arbonne located in what would be Ferrieres in the alt-Earth of his other books, with the Al-Rassan peninsula missing), although one that is somewhat similar to the alt-Earth. I suspect if Kay had come up with the idea a few years later he'd have set it in the same world.

I remember a discussion on Brightweavings where it was discussed if it was possible for FIONAVAR, ARBONNE and TIGANA to take place on the same world and it was concluded that they could, due to a reference in Arbonne to lands in the southern hemisphere which could be the Palm Peninsular. Both LORD OF EMPERORS and AL-RASSAN refer to the 'first world' of Finbar (Fionavar), confirming the alt-Earth is in the same universe as Fionavar.

That only leaves the question if Arbonne/Tigana-world is the same as Fionavar, which is apparently not the case (now I've found the reference):

Jeff said...

Start with The Lions of Al' Rassan or Tigana. They are his best two books. I love GGK, and given the rave reviews I've read for his latest it may be better than those two. I'm so excited.


Jebus said...

I really quite disliked Fionavar but am still interested to try out his other books. I think I have Tgana on my shelf somewhere and will eventually get to it.

He is not an author I recommend based on Fionavar but I have been assured by trusted sources that everything else of his is much better so I am planning on still going there, he's just not a priority.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I wouldn't have even managed the same world stuff. It's only ever a passing reference, or just the 'two moons' thing- never has any bearing on the actual story.

The Lions of Al-Rassan, Tigana or (now) Under Heaven are definitely the best to go with. If you read and like one of those it's guaranteed that you'd like the rest of his work.

And Pat is 80% correct. Under Heaven is probably his best work. It was fantastic. I withhold the other 20% until I see how it holds up after a few re-reads.


Anonymous said...

and by managed I meant mentioned.


David Wagner said...

I was at the bookstore tonight after work, holding two of Kay's books in my grubby hands (the only two of his on the shelves at the time, actually) and longed for some other customer or clerk who could provide the info you covered here so well. I didn't get either book, but now I know I could have. (The books were Ysabel and The Last Light of the Sun).

Thanks for the very informative post.

Sev said...

GGK has long been my favourite author, and yet I was unaware of the slight Fionavar link of two of his novels! 'Lions of Al-Rassan' has to be my favourite, but then I've yet to start 'Under Heaven'...

Brenda Hyde said...

I started out with Fionovar and LOVED it, then proceeded to read just about anything I could find by the author after that. I need to read it again. It's interesting that a few of you didn't like it. It is different than his other books, but I still thought it was amazing.

Darkstar said...

Thank you for that blog entry.

However I am now in doubt. I just purchased a few weeks ago A SONG FOR ARBONNE and am now worrying if it might be better NOT to read it first ...???

Adam Whitehead said...

ARBONNE is a fine place to start with Kay.

The only books which are badly adversely affected if read out of order are Books 2 and 3 of the FIONAVAR series and Book 2 of the SARANTINE MOSAIC duology. Everything else can be read in whatever order you choose with no problem.

Desk Jockey said...

I love this series of articles. Exactly the type of info I've been looking for. Thanks.

Jamie said...

I'm just reading The Last Light of the Sun at the moment, and I'm sure that the world depicted therein is only noted as having two moons, one white and one blue. That's what I recall from the Mosaic and Al-Rassan as well.

I guess it still means that the world in which Under Heaven takes place is not entirely the same, but just wanted to straighten a little bit of inaccuracy...

DregsofSand said...

I started with TIGANA just by chance, found it on a book shelf and thought the cover looked interesting. It proved to be the best so far. Next I read A SONG FOR ARBONNE, and that was almost as good. Fascinated with these works of brilliance, I had heard that the FIONAVAR TAPESTRY was better even than those. I dove in, and stopped short at 150 pages. THE SUMMER TREE was not nearly as good as either of the books I had recently read, and was actually below par on any level, I believe. Disappointed, I stumbled into the nearest used bookstore. In the back, beside a tall copy of Robert Jordan, I found THE LAST LIGHT OF THE SUN. I was happy to find inside more of the same I had read in TIGANA and ARBONNE. If what I read is true, AL-RASSAN and SARANTIUM will be just as good.

Marc D. said...

Kay is my second-favorite authoer (after Stephen R. Donaldson). I have yet to read Tigana or A Song For Arbonne, but the Sarantine Mosaic absolutely blew the doors off my mind. Under Heaven and (to a slightly lesser extent) River of Stars are also excellent.

Anonymous said...

I have conflicting thoughts about reading order when trying to introduce somebody new to Kay's work.
I happened to read them in the order they were published and have no regrets. I read Fionavar when close to its publication date and loved it. Now I feel it is the least best of his works but that has more to do with Kay growing as a writer and story teller. Would Fionavar be better if he wrote it now, I believe so but I have enjoyed seeing Kay's development.

I worry that if I suggest one of my favourite works of Kay's first, that when they read Fionavar, that they may feel it is a step down. But if they start with Fionavar, it may turn them off the future books - some people are like that.

Best option, just read all of his works.

Anonymous said...

I think it depends on what a person normally reads. As a kid I used to read Dragonlance & Forgotten Realms, then graduated to Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time, and Dune. I didn't read much for a while, but then started choosing authors at random, including George R.R. Martin and then Kay.

With this background, Fionavar was a step above the norm (possible exception of Dune), and from there it got better and better. If I were to introduce someone who is more into historical fiction (e.g. my wife who hates fantasy), I might start with the Sarantium Mosaic and move from there.

Looking forward to Al-Rassan!

Unknown said...

My only recommendation on order is to read Lions of Al Rassan before the Sarantine Duo. Sarantine is set just to the east of Lions, and a few centuries earlier, but has a few references at the end that only make sense if you've read Lions, and a few references to Kindath that make much more sense after you've read Lions.

Mother Campfire said...

That’s not odd, it is his weakest work. The fact that he has such range to go from Fionavar to Tigana is amazing. In fact, I couldn’t even finish book 1 of fionavar. That’s what I get for started with Tigana, I suppose. 🤷🏼‍♀️

Unknown said...

I think, for Kay, it's simple. Just read the books in order of publication. There are always echoes. This is the best way to avoid missing them. Fionavar is a starting place, a very young creation, I suppose outdated. But to read Song of Arbonne without hearing the echo in Lisseut's final song would diminish both.