Archive for the ‘Guy Gavriel Kay’ Category

Another excellent book by Guy Gavriel Kay, set as his others are in the world he has created; a world which echoes–but is not–ours. Two moons illuminate the skies of that world, and the conflicting religions are similar to–but are not–Christianity and Islam. The city names are like but are not ours–Sarantium, not Byzantium; Dubrava, not Zagreb; Seressa, not Venice. The history mirrors our early renaissance, whose wars and politics I have so recently experienced with Niccolo and Lymond, Dorothy Dunnett’s heroes–and which also course inspired the world of George Martin, in which I have been drowning myself for months now.
I think the reason I so love all these books is that their fabulous invention is based on solid history, peopled with believable men and women.
Dunnett sets her story in the actual world, weaving her fictional characters into actual events; Martin uses historical figures and events to base his stories on, and Kay takes historical figures and events and renames them, changes them slightly, adds a little magic–but the history is recognizably our own.
The story takes place years after the events described in Kay’s excellent Sailing to Sarantium, in a world where the west and east battle but also trade with one another, making treaties, breaking them. The Grand Khalif Gurcu– who captured Sarantium and renamed it Asharius, whose mighty Osmanli army conquered the east and parts of the west–has requested a western painter to come east to paint his portrait, and this request sets in motion a voyage during which 4 people will meet, changing each other’s lives. Danica is a warrior woman from Senjan, Leonora is a well born lady working as a spy for Seressa, Pero is the painter hired by the Khalif, and Marin is a wealthy merchant’s younger son. It is his ship that is carrying Leonara and Pero on their journeys, and which is boarded by Senjani raiders–one of whom is Danica. A brutal death during the raid forces Danica to leave her Senjan companions and travel on with the others–and so begins a fascinating tale. Their adventures are many, they part and come together again, meeting heroes and villains; escaping death by stealth, by wisdom–and by luck. One of the heroes is Skandir, the leader of a guerrilla band fighting the Osmanli conquerors–a small group which however managed to inflict considerable damage on their much more powerful enemies. For a while, Danica joins forces with them, while the others go on with their destinies, Leonara in Dubrova, Pero and Marin on their way to Asharius.
It was pleasing to find that despite all the death and destruction–such an elegiac tone pervading the book, such lyrical laments of grief and loss–there is a happy ending! For the four characters, anyway–and one other that we meet, a lost child who is found.
The story is based on actual history: Sultan Mehmed did in fact invite a Venetian painter to Constantinople to paint his portrait: Gentile Bellini, older brother of Giovanni Bellini. Skanderbeg, an Albanian chieftain, battled the Ottoman invaders all his life, and fought in many terrible battles. Venice had a vast network of spies, and a doge who was elected by his fellow merchants. But these are bare bones. It takes a master to so ably and elegantly clothe them, as Kay has done in this excellent book.

Quote (the clever duke is dealing with the powerful men on his council, one of whom has offended him):

“You behave like the son of a donkey and brothel-keeper, Signore Arnesti. You embarrass us. Remind me why you are permitted in this room?”

Shocking. But it pleased him to say it. The words established a fraught, frightened silence. The councillors were like a sculpted frieze around the table now, the duke thought.

Arnesti spoke again, reclaiming his voice. “You have insulted me mortally, my lord duke! I demand a retraction!”
“Retracted,” said the duke promptly. (Some things were too easy).
Arnesti opened his mouth and closed it. He was a fool. “


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That was a very pleasant book club, as usual! Here is what I have been reading since last we met:

Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Which I have read before, but picked it up to reread as an example of harmless merriment to get me through some difficult days, which it did very well—a charming and very entertaining book. The birth of the Anti Christ, and planned subsequent Armeggeddon, all set going except–FOILED by a nurse accidentally switching babies in the hospital. The demon and the angel who have been working on earth since the beginning have basically gone native, and are not keen on the whole Armaggeddon concept. The melding of Pratchett and Gaiman is brilliant.

One of my favorite scenes is the arrival of the Hound of Hell, fated to be the dread companion of the Anti-Christ. He prowls about seeking his Master, sizzling saliva dripping from its jaws–and hears his Master’s Voice. The Hound peers through a clump of nettles, and spots the group of kids in a quarry.

“I’m going to get a dog,” said his Master’s voice, firmly. His Master had his back to him; the Hound couldn’t quite make out his features.

“Oh, yeah, one of those great big Rottenreilers, yeah?”, said the girl, with withering sarcasm.

“No, it’s going to be the kind of dog you can have fun with”, said hi Master’s voice. “Not a big dog”

–the eye in the nettles vanished abruptly downwards—

“—but one of those dogs that’s brilliantly intelligent and can go down rabbit holes and has one funny ear that always looks inside out. And a proper mongrel, too, A pedigree mongrel. “

Unheard by those within, there was a tiny clap of thunder on the lip of the quarry. It might have been caused by the sudden rushing of air into the vacuum caused by a very large dog becoming, for example, a small dog.

The tiny popping noise that followed might have been caused by one ear turning itself inside out.”

And so on. Lovely stuff. Though the apocalypse almost happens—and the ghastly riders are all in place, and the heavenly hosts are ranged in all their splendour against the forces of hell—the world is saved because the anti-Christ is after all a nice boy who has been raised in a happy family, who loves his family, friends, and neighborhood. And, his dog.

And then I read a book where the apocalypse DOES happen:

Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

This book is too long and too prolix for me, but the scientific detail about comets is fascinating, and the authors have done a good job with realistically envisioning the aftermath of a catastrophic comet hit—I’m sure their research was profound. The impact causes tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic action: Europe is drowned, as are the coasts of America. The only human survivors are those who managed to escape to the high ground. And the long term survivors are those who manage to build a community, and salvage as much from the lost civilization as possible, including the respect for justice and decency it takes to keep people from eating each other. Literally. There is a large cast of characters whose struggles to overcome dreadful adversity is interesting enough. I am skipping through it, I admit—but, still at it!

The Last Light of the Sun, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Another excellent book by Kay; again drawn from real events, but with the addition of the mystical and magical, as in the other books–indeed, it is in the same world as Sailing to Sarantium, but a couple centuries later–there are references to the earlier time. This book is based on the Viking invasions of the British Isles and the Saxon resistance, including King Alfred and his court. Kay dutifully includes the iconic scene where King Alfred burns the cakes, and very well done it was, too. The characters are well drawn and engaging, the dialogue crisp, the descriptions clear and vivid. Like the Sarantium book, this led me to read more about the actual events of the time, and to look at the artifacts. Another winner.

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We didn’t talk about a lot of books this time, discussing other things like MS Word and databases and the happy completion of Lois’s class that she’s teaching at Georgetown. Rebecca mentioned the Under Heaven book, by GG Kay, and said she’d enjoyed it, with reservations about the torture parts. Horrible indeed, though surpassed in both type and frequency in Tigana, the first book by this author that I encountered and which I loved despite the horrible bits. I talked about the Fionavar Tapestry books, by the same author: a lot of Tolkienia and My Lord/My Lady chivalry tossed up with ancient Gods and Warrior legends, with a heaping serving of Golden Bough on the side. Which in no way stopped me from frantically devouring all 3 books in a lather of intensity. He writes a Good Story, does Guy Gavriel Kay. The one I just finished was the Sarantine Mosiac series, an excellent historical fiction (with a healthy dash of magic and ancient gods) about Byzantium, at the time of Justinian. Fascinating, really fascinating. I have spent much time seeking out images of the mosaics at Ravenna, which is the culminating work of our hero the mosaicist.

Ravenna mosaic of the Empress Theodora

Ravenna mosaic of the Empress Theodora

Startling and beautiful scenes of the Byzantine (or rather, in this book Sarantine–the first book is called Sailing to Sarantium, with obvious reference to the poem by Yeats) court and the vibrant city with the furious rivalry between the factions that support opposing chariot racing teams–the Blues and the Greens (this is completely based on actual history, see here).

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Sorry that Cathie was ill, and couldn’t make it!  We discussed our books–let me see, Rebecca mentioned Terrie Pratchett’s Going Postal, that excellent book (of which, btw, there is a movie) and Lois mentioned the Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East; a book which another book group–Lawyers of Montgomery County, was it?–are reading. Which reminds how nice it is to have a bookclub where we read whatever it is we feel like reading, and have a grand time once a month talking about it. With a glass of wine or two on the table by way of  encouragement. I talked about the latest Guy Gavriel Kay book I am listening to, called The Summer Tree, an engaging fantasy book–the familiar people-transported-from-our-world-to-another ploy.   Think grown up Narnia. I described one of the plot threads in the book,  about a man  involved in a terrible car accident which killed his beloved. In this other world, of Fionavar, he finally learns to forgive himself–or at least, to realize that it was not his fault — that he is human, and humans make mistakes. He was not to blame, he was not a murderer. An amazing moment of blessed peace–and, odd to find it in a fantasy book  abounding in Tolkienia and magic–and even, yes, a unicorn.

I borrowed a book from Lois, a collection of drawings and caricatures by William Auerbach-Levy –the style so familiar, from years of seeing his work in the New Yorker, perhaps.  Here are a couple examples:

Drawing of the Marx Brothers  Frank SinatraCharming drawings, no? Of course, most of them are of people that we don’t know, actors and actresses of the 40’s and 50’s.

Anyway, a pleasant meeting!

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Another fine book by this author, this time based on a particular time in the Tang dynasty of ancient China. Again, a fantasy version of actual history– in this case, the story of the An-Shi Rebellion. This was terrible and bloody time, when many millions died, either in the rebellion itself, or in the subsequent famines and plagues that are the inevitable sequel to such events. We move with our hero through Yang Gui Fei, the Precious Consortfabulous scenes as he makes his way through gorgeous country to the startling wealth and splendor of the capital. There are women warriors (and the kind of fighting seen in recent movies such as House of Flying Daggers), and silk farms, and brilliant poets, and concubines of surpassing beauty and courage, and through it all, a gripping plot, engaging characters, and fascinating  descriptions of elaborate customs — based on fact, which is more exotic and alien than anything a story teller could make up.  I particularly loved the notion of a famous poet showing up and becoming a companion of our hero–and that everywhere they go, the poet is immediately recognized and revered. Poets were the rock stars of the day, I saw somewhere. The skill of writing poetry was a required part of  the entrance exams for the civil service. A charming notion!

There is an elegiac note to the writing, an acknowledgement of time passing and the brevity of human life, often noted by way of the poems. And some of the poems quoted are very beautiful indeed. The poet in the book is based on the famous Tang poet, Li Bai.  And, by a strange coincidence — or, maybe not so strange, Mr. Kay is obviously a well read and educated man — the following poem by Li Bai,  quoted in the first chapter of Under Heaven, was also quoted in Patrick O’Brian’s Desolation Island:

The floor before my bed is bright:
Moonlight – like hoarfrost – in my room.
I lift my head and watch the moon.
I drop my head and think of home.

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I forget how I came upon this excellent author, but once I had downloaded it–read by the lyrical Simon Vance, who could, as they say, read a phone book and move you to tears –I could not put it down. Extremely engaging, extremely witty and also–extremely troubling. Violence, grotesque and nightmarish  violence, is always at your elbow in this book–and in subsequent books of the author that I have encountered. There is also a certain amount of explicit sex.  Not for the fainthearted, nor for the squeamish–which would usually include me, but somehow, didn’t, this time.

The story takes place in a fictional world, which however has a solid believable presence, and a tenuous relationship with medieval Italy. But so what, you say–many fantasy books are based on medieval history, many books blend fantasy with believable real world details. What this book has is all that–but also,  elegant language and exceptional plotting. This is a skillful work of art, filled with gorgeous images and a certain zest for life, for singing, for drinking with friends. And even, something of a happy ending, a  thing of which I am inordinately fond.

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