Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne is, you might say, a tale of two countries.
First, there is “woman-ruled Arbonne”: a fantasy analogue of medieval Provencal France which is run on the principles of courtly love – meaning that women have significant soft power. The Arbonnais honour the moon-goddess Rian. Then there’s Gorhaut, a wintry northern country governed according to strict feudal principles, where women are considered little more than chattel. They despise Rian and worship instead her spouse, warrior-god Corannos.
Recent political developments have given Gorhaut both the means and the motive to invade Arbonne. It hasn’t done so yet when the novel begins, but everyone’s very aware of the volatile situation. Against that backdrop, a prominent Gorhaut warrior called Blaise enters into service with an Arbonnais lord, and an old grudge between two Arbonnais noblemen (involving a lost love and a missing child) threatens the security of the kingdom.
It’s the kind of fantasy that is almost not fantasy at all: the only sign of magic is the odd dream and/or vision. Relatedly, and rarer, it’s the kind of fantasy that cares about religion but not at all about whether the gods exist. You could read it as a companion to N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon: both novels feature twin societies – one decadent, one more ascetic – who worship the same deities but in very different ways.
It’s also a novel with a strong interest in the intersections between the personal and the political – specifically, in the ways that political considerations constrain personal relationships. Much of the novel’s intrigue concerns married people sleeping with people who aren’t their spouses: in fact two of the key characters are more or less openly in a marriage of convenience, as one of them is a gay man and the other a woman who enjoys quite a lot of sexual freedom as a result. How do these characters manipulate the power structures they find themselves in? How flexible are those power structures? How far do they allow people to balance personal fulfilment and public notions of honour and shame?
These are questions that would, I think, be more difficult to interrogate in a modern realist novel: Western culture at the moment has such a focus on individual achievement and self-actualisation that it’s tricky to see how more public pressures are acting, though I think those pressures are still there. For instance, career success has become so bound up with the idea of personal success that the thought that men might want to take some parental leave to bond with a new child is almost a radical one (although that’s changing, happily).
Like The Killing Moon, I think A Song for Arbonne is functioning as a thought experiment – at least, if that’s not its main function it’s at least one of its primary ones. So it makes its own argument best, and you should read it! (I’m glad I disregarded my woeful experience with The Summer Tree in deciding whether to give this a go.)