This summation appears courtesy of Mary Anne Mohanraj and Christopher Cobb, and first appeared in Strange Horizons ezine.
Each of Kay’s later novels is patterned after a different southern European culture and its history. The story in Tigana is modeled on Italian history and culture; A Song for Arbonne’s story is based on the history of the Languedoc region in southern France. The Lions of Al-Rassan follows the later history of the Muslim kingdom of Granada in southern Spain during the Christian reconquest of the Spanish peninsula. Finally, The Sarantine Mosaic is based on the history and culture of the early Byzantine Empire. Kay works closely with his historical sources, but he sometimes makes crucial changes in the course of events. Knowing something about the history he is using can enrich the story for the reader, so we’re providing a brief account of the history behind each one. Kay’s first books, The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, posit a universe in which many different worlds, including our own, are all patterned on the first world, Fionavar. It makes sense, then, for him to show alternative versions of our own world’s history unfolding in his fantasy worlds.
Tigana uses Italian geography, history, and culture to create the Peninsula of the Palm. Before the middle of the nineteenth century, there was no Italian nation. Instead, the Italian peninsula was governed by many small, independent states. Italy was civilized and wealthy, but its internal political rivalries left its small states vulnerable to the great powers that bordered it on the north: France and the Hapsburg Empire. They repeatedly invaded the peninsula, conquering and reconquering the various Italian states as they struggled for dominance in the region. During the nineteenth century, small groups of Italian nationalists began organizing secret societies dedicated to freeing the Italian states from foreign control and unifying them into a strong Italian nation. After many years of struggle, they succeeded. The actions of Alessan and his followers, as they work to free the Palm from the dominion of Barbadior and Ygrath, are derived from this history, which holds many examples of individual heroism. Perhaps the greatest of these was that of the revolutionary leader Garibaldi, who with only a thousand soldiers invaded and overthrew the Kingdom of Sicily and Naples, which ruled all of southern Italy. Their most improbable victory made the full unification of Italy possible.
A Song for Arbonne
A Song for Arbonne draws on the history of Languedoc, the region that is now southern France. During the High Middle Ages (c. 1000-1200 C.E.), this region was independent of the French crown, and it developed a vibrant culture of its own, which greatly influenced all of Europe. Central to this culture were the troubadors. These poets (and the singers who performed their songs) were the first in Europe to celebrate romantic love. Their poetry helped to develop the culture of courtly love among the nobility throughout Europe. Under the influence of the doctrines of courtly love, knights, who had been nothing but brutal warriors, began to serve ladies, seeking favor through civility and grace. This change was crucial to the revival of art and learning all over Europe. This region was also, however, the birthplace of the Cathar heresy, the first major heresy in Western Christendom. Persecution of this heresy led to the downfall of the region and its courtly culture. With the Pope’s blessing, the King of France mounted a crusade against the Cathars. The Languedoc nobles, anxious to preserve their freedoms, protected the Cathars, and so the crusade also became a war of conquest for the King of France. In a conflict marked by extreme atrocity, the Cathar heresy was exterminated, Languedoc was brought under French rule, and the glory of the region’s culture was largely destroyed. (The particulars of the Cathar heresy, by the way, bear little resemblance to the divide between the cults of Corannos and Rian in Kay’s work.)
The Lions of Al-Rassan
The Lions of Al-Rassan draws on the story of the fall of Granada, the last Muslim state in Spain. During the early Middle Ages, Islamic armies had conquered nearly all of the Iberian peninsula. Under Muslim rule, a rich, tolerant civilization arose. Arab scholars translated and preserved Greek classical learning, and Arab, Jewish, and Christian scholars were able to meet and to exchange ideas. The small Christian kingdoms in the north of Spain began to reconquer the peninsula, however, and by the middle of the thirteenth century, only the kingdom of Granada in southern Spain remained in Muslim hands. The Christian conquerors were much less tolerant than their Muslim predecessors, so the cultural richness of the region largely disappeared as the peninsula was re-Christianized. To preserve itself, Granada sought aid from the Arab kingdoms of north Africa, but this aid presented a danger of a different kind. The North African Muslims were much more religiously austere than the Muslims of Spain had become, so as their influence grew, the tolerant culture of Granada became increasingly threatened by the kingdom’s own allies. Eventually, Granada was conquered by the Spanish Christians, but the glories of its tolerant, cosmopolitan culture were lost even before the kingdom fell.
The Sarantine Mosaic
The Sarantine Mosaic picks up the story of the Byzantine Empire near the point of its greatest power, influence, and glory. Having survived the barbarian invasions that led to the collapse of the western Roman Empire in 476 C.E., the eastern Empire began to grow again, reaching its greatest extent during the reign of Justinian, who ruled from 527 to 565 C.E. The reign of Kay’s Valerius is closely modeled on Justinian’s. His goal was to re-unify the old Roman Empire by reconquering as much of the lost west as possible, and he expanded his empire in northern Africa and in Italy. He also promoted cultural revival through patronage of art and architecture. His most magnificent project was the Church of Holy Wisdom — Hagia Sophia — in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), the capital of the Empire, though several smaller but exquisitely decorated churches that were built under his patronage still survive in Ravenna, the Byzantine Empire’s foothold in Italy. After Justinian’s death, the Byzantine Empire declined from its early peak of power. Internal theological controversy over the proper use of images in worship led to the destruction of a great deal of religious art and significantly weakened the Empire. Shortly thereafter, the armies of Islam appeared suddenly out of Arabia. The Empire survived the Arabian invasion of the early 8th century (its neighbor empire and long-time rival, the Sassanid Empire of Persia, did not), but it was permanently weakened by the Islamic conquest of all of the Empire’s lands in northern Africa and the Middle East. Kay foreshadows both of these threats to the empire in Lord of Emperors. These foreshadowings, and Crispin’s awareness of the ruins of civilization in his homeland (the former seat of the Rhodian Empire), make even the wealth and power of the Sarantine Empire at its height seem vulnerable and transitory.