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Literature / A Song For Arbonne

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A Song For Arbonne is a fantasy novel by Guy Gavriel Kay inspired by the Albigensian Crusade, a medieval military campaign aimed at destruction of heretics in the south of France. It is set in a land resembling medieval Western Europe, and mostly in Arbonne, which is this world's stand-in for the targets of the crusade, Languedoc and Provence.

There is a saying, known in both of the two countries, that Gorhaut and Arbonne could never coexist in peace. Gorhaut is a harsh, stern northern realm ruled by warrior aristocracy and the priesthood of the sky god Corannos; Arbonne is a warm, sunny land of wine and olives, whose inhabitants enjoy troubadours' poetry and songs and worship the goddess Rian as an equal to Corannos, and that's not to mention being ruled by a woman.

In the current day, Arbonne is torn by the conflict between two of its most powerful lords, whose hatred for each other has not dimmed in the slightest over twenty-three years that had passed since the death of a woman who stood between them. What is a major nuisance may however soon prove to be deadly: the king of Gorhaut has recently signed an inconvenient peace treaty, and starts looking at Arbonne as a way to make up for the losses.


This novel contains examples of following tropes:

  • All According to Plan: Galbert de Garsenc is fond of this, down to the ambiguity. See The Chessmaster below.
  • Arc Words:
    • "Even the birds above the lake are singing of my love."
    • "Until the sun dies and the moons fall, Arbonne and Gorhaut will not lie easily beside each other."
  • Archnemesis Dad: Galbert de Garsenc, for Blaise de Garsenc.
  • Batman Gambit: Galbert forges a reason for war by correctly predicting the reactions of no less than three people: a) that his actions toward her will push his daughter-in-law to flee to Arbonne, b) that the countess of Arbonne will behave like a decent human being and offer her asylum, c) that his king will take it as a personal insult.
    • Countess Cygne later gets to pull one of her own: By staging a falling out between Urte and Bertran over the latter being named commander of Arbonne's army, she ensures that Ademar and Galbert are unaware of Urte's true allegiances until the last possible moment.
  • The Caligula: Ademar of Gorhaut. He's kinda like adult Joffrey.
  • The Casanova: Bertran de Talair. As he says, he looks for a woman who could equal Aelis. In the twenty-three years since her death, he hasn't yet found any. Although in the end he warms up to the widow of Ranald de Garsenc.
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  • Chekhov's Gunman: Ludh of Baude.
  • The Chessmaster: Galbert de Garsenc, Gorhaut's high priest of Corannos, master of Batman Gambit. With a taste of Unreliable Narrator towards the end. If he is to be believed, his craptastic treatment of his sons and Blaise's subsequent rebellion were all parts of his plan to place a de Garsenc on the throne of Gorhaut: by pushing one of his sons to leave in disgust, he could create a believable pretender. Destruction of Arbonne was merely a bonus.
  • Corrupt Church: In a way, a subversion of Religion of Evil. At first, the cult of Corannos outside of Arbonne looks like yet another Dark Fantasy oppressive religion. Then Blaise makes a point that Corannos is a god of protectors, and his warriors are supposed to stand against injustice and help the weak, and it's the high priest who's the real heretic.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: Defied. Blaise tries to pull it off, but the defeated one declines for honour reasons.
  • Defector from Decadence: Blaise left Gorhaut over political differences with the royal court and his own family, unable to stand the peace treaty with Valensa his father pushed through.
  • Defrosting Ice King: Blaise toward the entire nation of Arbonne. At the beginning, he shares his country's distaste for troubadors, woman rulers, and courtly love. By the end of the book, his personal experiences with all three have led him to a greater understanding.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: At least as of the end of the book, Blaise decides he respects Thierry too much to keep sleeping with his wife Ariane. Which girl he *does* get is open to interpretation—see Maybe Ever After below.
  • Dragon-in-Chief: Galbert is easily the Big Bad of the story, and constantly plays the nominally in-charge King Ademar like a fiddle.
  • Duel to the Death: Blaise uses a duel to officially present himself a pretender to the throne of Gorhaut. Several other duels also happen (notably when Ranald de Garsenc challenges Ademar over the slight to the honour of his family).
  • Dysfunctional Family: The Garsenc boys have been hurting each other and everyone within reach for decades now. Only Blaise seems to stand a chance of breaking the cycle.
  • Failed a Spot Check: When we first meet Lisseut, she's having such a good time at Midsummer that she fails to notice she's about to be the victim of a humiliating tradition.
  • Fake Defector: Urte of Miraval. With a twist on Neutral No Longer.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Per the author's staple, each of the six countries is a stand-in for a historical society:
    • Arbonne is medieval south of France, with the Mediterranean agriculture, cultural differences to the northern part, tradition of troubadours, and heresy.
    • Gorhaut is medieval France (the northern part). Essentially, the Grim Up North version of France (you don't see that often, eh?), fresh out of a lengthy conflict with Valensa that mirrors the Hundred Years' War. It is also regarded as the birthplace of Corannos and the religious authority in the first-among-equals sort of way, which either adds to the mix a small tinge of Palestine and Vatican, or furthers Gorhaut's link to medieval France through the old nickname "the eldest daughter of the Church".
    • Valensa is England, although set on the same mainland as all the other countries.
    • Arimonda is Spain. Two Arimondans we see are good fighters with a bit of a honour obsession.
    • Portezza is Italy, divided into city-states and dominated by powerful merchant families.
    • Götzland is Germany, umlauts included. They have their own troubadours standing for the Minnesänger.
    • The Ancients stand for the Ancient Rome, although it appears nobody speaks their language anymore.
  • Femme Fatale: Lucianna. Dear Corannos. She's like an eviler, creepier version of Lukrezia Borgia, even though about the worst we actually see of her is that she's into bondage.
  • Festival Episode: The second part of the book takes place over a single eventful night during Arbonne's Midsummer celebration.
  • The Heretic: Arbonneans are perceived this way because of their unorthodox worship of the goddess Rian.
  • Honor Before Reason: Blaise's duel is pretty much a dual case. Blaise's entry is already a risky affair, but his enemy, Quzman the Arimondan, tops him. After losing in combat he asks Blaise to finish him, and when Blaise doesn't, he provokes his seconds into an equivalent of Suicide by Cop.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Let's just try and count the characters who are romantically linked to each other by love, marriage, or one-way crushes: Blaise, Lisseut, Rosala, Lucianna, Bertran, Ariane, Thierry, Ranald, Ademar, Galbert, Aelis, Urte, Borsiard,'s faster to list the characters that *aren't* involved somehow.
  • Low Fantasy: The low-on-magic kind. About all magic you get is the limited magical sight and occasional vision, and enhanced medical and midwifery skill of priestesses of Rian.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Galbert has the king wrapped around his finger, and he's the real thinker behind Gorhaut (of the kind that makes the manipulated think it's his own idea).
  • Maybe Ever After: The epilogue mentions that Blaise ended up marrying twice. His first wife is most likely Rinette, Bertran and Aelis's daughter, but it's never mentioned whether his second wife is his old flame Lucianna—like his father suggested—or Ariane, the woman he's in love with by the end of the book. Complicating this, it's said that Lisseut never marries, but also that she bears a son with unknown parentage. Whether this means that she ended up following through with her crush on Blaise, or was impregnated by a third party, is not stated.
  • No Woman's Land: Gorhaut, and by Blaise's words also apparently the other of the six countries but Arbonne.
  • Polyamory: It's implied that Ariane and Thierry have this sort of arrangement. He's gay, and she's sexually liberated, but their marriage seems to work as a partnership while they fulfill their physical needs elsewhere.
  • Posthumous Character: Aelis of Miraval, wife to Urte and lover to Bertran.
  • Professional Killer: Rudel Correzze foremostly, but his friend Blaise isn't foreign to this trade, either.
  • Redemption Equals Death: In the last moments of Ranald's life, he realizes how much time he's wasted as an angry, useless drunk, and that he could have been much kinder to Rosala and Blaise. Before dying, he manages to do one good deed, telling his soldiers to defect to Arbonne's side of the Battle of Lake Diurne.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Initially appears to be the case with Bertran's lost child. After a whole book of wondering where the missing son could be, a dying Urte reveals that the boy was born prematurely, and died within hours. Subverted soon after, though, when Ariane reveals that Aelis had been carrying twins.
  • Shocking Defeat Legacy: The Battle of the Iersen Bridge and the peace treaty that followed. See Won the War, Lost the Peace below.
  • Snow Means Death: The Battle of the Iersen Bridge was fought in snow, in the midst of winter. The image of his king's death upon the snowy field, close enough to see him well but too far to help, haunts Blaise constantly.
  • Straight Gay: Thierry de Carenzu. Also a very competent one. Despite having reservations about aspects like this of Arbonnean culture, Blaise is nothing but full of respect for him.
  • Triang Relations: Not only are there multiple characters with their own varying triangles, these triangles tend to overlap at so many points that it becomes more like Complex Polygon Relations. See Love Dodecahedron above.
  • Unreliable Narrator: In-universe. Did Galbert de Garsenc really orchestrate the entire story in order to place a member of his family on the throne of Gorhaut? Or is he just making stuff up so he can get in one last shot at his son before dying? Both are equally plausible.
  • Warrior Poet: Bertran de Talair, literally. He is an accomplished troubadour.
  • Weird Moon: The author's staple, one moon is white and the other blue.
  • Won the War, Lost the Peace: Upon Iersen Bridge, Gorhaut repelled Valensa at the cost of the life of its king. His son soon signed the Treaty of the Iersen Bridge, which ceded all the northern lands of Gorhaut to Valensa in exchange for money, dispossessing a significant part of Gorhaut's population and squandering the victory in the actual battle. It soon became obvious that it made Gorhaut hungry for territory, and able to finance southward conquest, exactly as Galbert wished.