“The world was that way, and now it is this way. And it won’t change back and I won’t change into someone who can navigate the new better than the old. And I have to deal with that.”
That’s it, right there. That’s why Under Heaven, Tigana, Sailing To Sarantium, A Song for Arbonne, and–most magnificently–The Lions of Al-Rassan trump The Fionavar Tapestry, hands-down. Not because of the cultural borrowing from the Ming Dynasty, or Imperial Constantinople or medieval France or Italy. Not because of the religious mirroring he constructs between the sun, moons and stars and the three perpetually squabbling religions of the Middle East. But because the changes in the pseudo-historical novels are greater than the simplistic set-up of good-vs-evil. It’s not one battle, one campaign or one war even, on which the fate of humanity (or whatever mythical creature) is staked. It’s just time, and time’s effects. Whether it’s a war, a coup, a vendetta, climate change–the worlds these characters inhabit are no longer what they once were, and the best characters spend the entire book coming to terms with that.
Or at least trying to.
And that resonates so much more with me than the kneejerk cry of “fight back the orcs!” Don’t get me wrong; I’ve played Lord of the Rings Online since it was in beta, and still return to The Silmarillion for bald escapism in the face of trying times (see: calculus class, cancer scares). But I don’t pick up a Guy Gavriel Kay novel for escapism. He doesn’t drown you in enough cultural details for that. He spends more time with the characters than with their [however colorful] environments, and that’s why these books are so worth your time.
Excepting, again, The Fionavar Tapestry, whose vociferous adherents I do not understand. Competent females, check, generous helping of loss, check, and intriguing cosmological framework, check, but it’s still stuck in the old rut of The Bad Guys and The Good Guys (however flawed). They (it’s a trilogy) aren’t bad books by any means, but his others are so much more powerful. Why anyone would choose The Fionavar Tapestry over The Lions of Al-Rassan baffles me. Unless, I suppose, you really needed that almost total divorce from real-world events and comparable situations.
I really need to get my hands on River of Stars, is what I’m saying.