“What are you a sign for?” someone asked me in EverQuest, when I was twelve. I was confused for a moment until I remembered the name I’d chosen for my latest alt — Signe, named for Signe de Barbentain, from A Song for Arbonne, which I was then reading. Here is her introduction:
Some mornings, as today, she woke feeling amazingly young, happy to be alive to see the spring return. It wasn’t altogether a good thing, this brief illusion of youth and vitality, for its passage—and it always passed—made her too achingly aware that she was lying alone in the wide bed. She and Guibor had shared a room and a bed after the older fashion until the very end, a little over a year ago. Arbonne had observed the yearfast for its count and the ceremonies of remembrance scarcely a month past.
A year wasn’t very long at all, really. Not nearly enough time to remember without pain private laughter or public grace, the sound of a voice, resonance of a tread, the keen engagement of a questioning mind or the well-known signs of kindled passion that could spark and court her own.
A passion that had lasted to the end, she thought, lying in bed alone, letting the morning come to her slowly. Even with all their children long since grown or dead, with an entirely new generation of courtiers arising in Barbentain, and younger dukes and barons taking power in strongholds once ruled by the friends—and enemies—of their own youth and prime. With new leaders of the city-states of Portezza, a young, reckless-sounding king in Gorhaut, and an unpredictable one as well, though not young, in Valensa far in the north. All was changing in the world, she thought: the players on the board, the shape of the board itself. Even the rules of the game she and Guibor had played together against them all for so long.
There had been mornings in the year gone by when she had awakened feeling ancient and bone cold, wondering if she had not outlived her time, if she should have died with the husband she’d loved, before the world began to change around her.
Which was weak and unworthy. She knew that, even on the mornings when those chill thoughts came, and she knew it more clearly now, with the birds outside her window singing to welcome the spring back to Arbonne. Change and transience were built into the way Corannos and Rian had made the world. She had accepted and gloried in that truth all her life; it would be shallow and demeaning to lament it now.
Before her name even rose on the page, I knew she was the one I’d named my character after, so long ago. I can’t explain — I suppose it has little place, at the moment; we are too concerned with surviving the next few years to even imagine growing old, to have obtained safety and sanity as a planet long enough to get there — how valuable, how much of a blueprint, the women of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books were for me, growing up. But I can recognize them when they appear, even when I haven’t read the book for years; even when I haven’t, as in this case, finished it.*
Of course I gravitated to Signe. She had loved lastingly, and managed to survive even the cavernous loss of that love. She remained capable of recognizing change in the world without balking at it, or blaming it for her own losses.
Bertran, too, though — now that I’ve read further and decided, in fact, to post this. It would be disingenuous to parade around Kay’s women as the only or chief reason to read his books. It’s broader than that. Bertran de Talair, like Alessan (and Dianora!) of Tigana, like Crispin of Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, like basically everyone in Lions of Al-Rassan, which I will love until I die, Kay’s characters provide roadmaps to (and through) loss. I do not wish to be thought excessively morbid here, but those are rather important. Knowing people can recover (or not); knowing the multitudinous ways in which your courage and self-regard and faith can fracture and dissolve in the face of the absence of what you most loved, and still do: that’s really fucking important. And while that’s not the point of any of these books — of any of these characters — it is what makes them fiercely lovable. Show me how to put yourself back together again. That it can be done.
They don’t all do it in the same way, of course. That would be trite, boring, and unrealistic. And you’re not always looking at the loss of a romantic partner, either: a country, a kingdom, a child. So many things lost, reflecting so many ways people falter and fail to protect themselves against fate. Against time.
You can see, can’t you, how important — how valuable — it is, to see such things portrayed? The fact that the world portrayed may or may not have magic in it, or gods who answer, or names of places and people that evoke those of the real world — that’s all dressing on the side. That’s not why I keep Kay’s books on reserve like bottles of wine in a basement, seeking a particular, rare vintage when the occasion calls for it. People misunderstand, I think, when I try to sing his books’ praises to them. “Oh, so you want to read about history without really reading about history,” is the typical response. No, I don’t. I want to see how people grow old and love and die in a world close enough to this one to offer advice. And I want to know that though there are very, very different people marching toward that end down very different paths, they can still get there without breaking along the way. Possibly while happy. Or with the memory of happiness still alive within them.
I named myself after Signe when I was twelve, when my mother and even her own mother were still healthy. I had barely scratched the surface of adolescence, and the only premonition of its moody unwieldiness I’d yet had to suffer was a military brat’s move to a new city. There was no sprawling, neon-lit reason for me to look at someone like Signe and think that I could or should learn from her, become her, in a game or in the world.
No reason, except that even twelve year olds aren’t dumb. You don’t have to see the grasping roots of illness dismantling those you love to know it can happen. You don’t have to have begged the school secretary for quarters to call home and make sure the bombing didn’t take your father, to know it can happen. (For reference, Columbine occurred when I was twelve: even us nostalgic 90s kids knew we could die in an instant.) You know these things happen. That you cannot escape all of them. What you don’t know, as a twelve or a twenty or a thirty year old, is how to deal with them. What you are supposed to do. Who you are supposed to be. More than the jeweled mosaics or mountain town mysticism; more than the palaces and priesthoods and resurrected social strictures of cultures long extinct, this is why you read Guy Gavriel Kay’s books. Because his characters suffer the same wounds we do, and manage, if not always to be better for it, at least to make a kind of sense of the aftermath. To make sense as aftermath.
That is something worth learning. If we are to serve as signs for others, willing or otherwise, let us at least point toward knowledge worth knowing.
*It would make a better story to say I didn’t finish it for the same reason I didn’t finish The Bell Jar — I was hit by a car while riding my bicycle, book in my coat pocket, and never recovered it from the scene of the accident. But A Song for Arbonne disappeared years before that; I don’t know why. My father purged everything in our house, my books included, in a fury over my mother’s decline, so my original copy is long gone. I’ve always remembered to return to it, though. It’s the last of Kay’s alternate histories I’ve not yet read. The real last — in that I haven’t finished it.