Review : A Song for Arbonne

Recently finished A Song for Arbonne. It had been a while since I’d read a good fantasy novel, so this was actually a treat. Also, I’ve been quite impressed with Guy Gavriel Kay as an author – he’s one of the fantasy authors that I’ve heard rumored before as being a decent writer, but that I hadn’t given the time to yet. I’m glad I did, and it won’t be the last I read of him.

I’m not too keen on book reviews that recount the storyline. Since I’m blogging more about writing than reading, I’m gonna dig into what I learned from the book rather than details of what happens. If you want to know what the book’s about, well, go read it.

The book was recommended to me on the basis of how Kay weaves in the back-story into what’s happening in the present day. After reading it, I have to agree that he does it very effectively. It’s amazing how little actual page-count is needed to build up a whole history in the reader’s mind if it’s done well.

Some points to remember about backstory:

  • If the backstory doesn’t have direct impact on the present story, why are you telling it? This isn’t to say that background doesn’t have a place, but if you can’t explain how the information is necessary it probably isn’t.
  • Less is more. Probably one of the best effects in Song for Arbonne from the backstory is the desire to know more about it. The bits we receive are tantalizing, and rather than dolling out the history in big chunks he builds it up a bit at a time, sucking the reader along the whole way.
  • Emotion is key to engaging backstory… just like any other story. The backstory in Arbonne is charged with all sorts of different emotions – love, desire, hatred. The intensity of the characters’ past is part of what makes it interesting.