The Big Idea: Guy Gavriel Kay

Home is where the heart is. But sometimes, when it comes to homes, there are people who seem destined to be heartbroken. Guy Gavriel Kay explains why, and the power of that peculiar condition, and how it comes to matter in his latest novel River of Stars.


Sometimes a reader’s question stops you cold. Makes you cast an eye back over your own body of work and think about it differently. This can happen with an academic paper or a thoughtful review, but it feels more immediate when it is a direct query.

“What is it with exile in your books?”

That’s what one of my publicists asked last month in the midst of an email covering all sorts of things from the need for me to write some essays for her (voila!) to new author photos (truth in advertising was hinted at), to timing the release of Advance Reading Copies of River of Stars into the blogosphere, to how many puns I am allowed to make on Twitter. (I won that one.)

She didn’t say, “Tell me about ‘exile’ in River of Stars”, which would have been fairly straightforward because it is a major theme there. (We’ll get to that.) No, she threw it out as an overarching thought across all my books.

I started to track back. (Some mild spoilers in this.) Right away, in Fionavar, we had Matt Sören exiled, and Aileron. And Torc’s father. Three in a row – in the first volume of the trilogy.

Tigana is so much about the implications and reverberations of exile, physical and spiritual. An epigraph from Dante sets it up:

                   All that you held most dear you will put by

                             and leave behind you: and this is the arrow

                             the longbow of your exile first lets fly.


                   You will come to know how bitter as salt and stone

                             is the bread of others, how hard the way that goes

                             up and down stairs that never are your own.


(You think I was going to miss a chance to quote those stunning words? That’s the John Ciardi translation of the Paradiso, by the way.)

In A Song for Arbonne the protagonist is in self-imposed exile from his homeland (very real, notwithstanding) and a woman flees that same homeland, later. In Lions of Al-Rassan, both of the male protagonists are exiled by their monarchs. The book came together for me in the research phase when I realized, from two different books, that the real figures who inspired my characters had been exiled by different kings to the same city at the same time. I don’t think anyone had ever noted it. It was a gift for me, as a storyteller.

The two Sarantium books have many characters leaving home for far away, sometimes by painful choice, sometimes under orders, one sold, one fleeing assassination. They all look at the city where they arrive through stranger’s eyes. Last Light of the Sun is anchored in the reality that an exile in that harsh northern world was utterly exposed and unprotected. One needed a framework of family and community to have a decent chance to survive. In Ysabel, the principle narrator is also a long way from home but he isn’t ‘exiled’. On the other hand, the two thousand year old love triangle at the heart of the book has three figures exiled in time, desperately far from their origins and their world.

In Under Heaven one of the female protagonists is ‘married to a far horizon’, sent into exile as a bride to a steppe tribe the empire wants pacified, and a different princess has set the plot in motion from her own marriage-into-exile. The response of poets to the sorrow of such women reverberates through Chinese literature and I wanted it in the book.

So, yes, I’ve been exploring this for a long time. The question nailed it. I owe someone a martini.

We all have our understanding of human nature and the world. Our themes as writers shift as we change as people and artists (or they should, I think). A motif might drift away, and later re-emerge to be explored differently – because we are different and the world is for us.

I find exile to be one of the most powerful ways to present and explore a character in extremis. The intensity of that. Longing for the homeland. The idea of exile also lets a novelist, if he’s done his or her homework, underscore elements of the society being evoked. Why are people exiled? What does it mean for them? For those left behind?

It also, from a technical, ‘writerly’ perspective, can set up a viewpoint for the reader: if someone is experiencing a new place (cynically, fearfully, arrogantly?), their observations and reactions become a way in for the reader who is, obviously, also ‘away from home’.

In River of Stars, my newest, the idea of political exile is a dominant one in the culture I’m shaping, drawn from harsh historical reality. As prime ministers and their followers came into and out of power around erratic emperors, the people that were ‘out’ were … well, they were way, way out during the Song Dynasty which inspired this book.

Exile could be mild – to your country estate or your home town. But it could also be, and more and more often it became, a way of killing a man (and his wife and children and extended family) without drawing blood. Exiling someone over mountains and through jungles to the steaming hot, malarial south had … predictable effects. A cycle of political revenge emerged in that dynasty (and in my novel) built around sending people to places where, as Goldfinger said to 007, ‘I expect you to die, Mr Bond.’

I don’t write novels inspired by history to offer easy parallels to our own time. That can feel lazy, or glib, or both. But I do find immense richness in seeing how the past is both startlingly similar and amazingly strange, and thereby giving myself (and the reader) something to think about in the midst of a story I hope will keep them turning pages late.

Let’s just say, as a conclusion, that I want you exiled from your own life in the world River of Stars creates. Then (extending the image) when you finish the book, you come home – with something gained from that time away.

In all the stories and studies of the mythic ‘hero’s journey’ it isn’t the adventure away that is critical, it is the coming home with treasure (of many different kinds, including wisdom), that is the key. I like books that take us away, and guide us back with something new. I try to write that way.


River of Stars: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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17 Comments on “The Big Idea: Guy Gavriel Kay”

  1. Thanks, Guy.

    The idea of “Transport” in Fantastika, to use my friend John Stevens’ terminology, is something your fiction is very very good at. I now see the “Thread” starting with the Saratine (my personal favorites) and running through to River of Stars. Well done!

  2. Well Guy, you can always come home to Winnipeg. Never consider yourself an exile from your birthplace. (Although you might want to wait until we get nicer weather–if that ever happens in this year of neverending winter.)

  3. I’m already reading Under Heaven and I really love it. Yeah, the whole exile thing was something I noticed with your books too – but it is a theme I really enjoy.

  4. I love that question and the notion of having an overarching theme to your books. I especially love the dimension of exile and its place in the hero’s journey. I read Tigana. I’m looking forward to River of Stars.

  5. I’m fascinated, and I’m looking forward to reading Under Heaven, but this answer left me wanting. Exile is an amazingly prevalent theme in your work, so obviously, you are drawn to characters of exile in history. You are inspired by them. You feel compelled to explore their situations. If you were going to write an essay on the topic, I’d rather hear about why this is all so fascinating to you personally–what you draw from these types of characters and situations. To sum it up as a literary device to transport the readers, etc, feels like an incomplete answer. There’s lots of ways to get to those goals as an author. So why this one way in particular for you?

  6. I like the theme, but, truth be told, Kay could write a book about packing peanuts, and I would read it.

  7. Added to my reading list. I’d love to re-read Tigana and Song for Arbonne, but can’t find them as eBooks.

  8. I hadn’t thought about that pattern in GGKs, but upon reading this is should have been obvious. It certainly does allow a chance for extra dimensions of characters to be shown, which I always feel his books do wonderfully.

    And so far RoS holds up to the wonder of his previous books. So worth the wait.

  9. More than just physical exile, GGK writes about the exile of the soul. The Sarantine Mosaic had several instance of characters being forever changed and unable to be at home in their surroundings the same way they used to, even if they didn’t go anywhere. The protagonist in Under Heaven is definitely an exile from his own culture.

  10. “In all the stories and studies of the mythic ‘hero’s journey’ it isn’t the adventure away that is critical, it is the coming home with treasure (of many different kinds, including wisdom), that is the key. I like books that take us away, and guide us back with something new. I try to write that way.”

    In my line of work, we make this distinction also, call it the difference between being a tourist and being a pilgrim. Everyone comes back; not everyone is changed. Thanks for a thoughtful reflection on exile in literature, Guy–you just gained a new reader.

  11. The way that I see exile in Guy Gavriel Kay (and I stress that this is only one way of looking at it) is that in some ways, the journey from the familiar into the unfamiliar mimics the journey from the mundane world to the fantastic and wondrous world that one finds in many genre fantasy novels. However, since Kay combines the fantasy novel with the historical novel, the new world is not quite so “wondrous,” as realistically rendered. Perhaps this effect is best visible in Tigana, where the exile is caused by a magic spell that makes the world of Devin, Alessan, Catriana, and Baerd a strange place indeed–and a place of exile. I’m writing my Honours Thesis on Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels. Check out my blog:

  12. I first read GGK way back in the late 80s when I latched onto his Fionavar books (the highlight of my last year at high school). I think it is safe to say he has been, and remains, the premier fantasy writer – his ability to weave emotion and story and action into his wonderful books is without peer. GRR Martin gets all the attention these days (more power to him), but Kay is the better writer, by far.

  13. Your books (the earlier ones, anyway) also have that pattern of giving me characters I totally fall in love with… and then you kill them. I can’t remember any of them now but when I think of your books, I still feel that stunned shock at being so deftly played. More than once. I should’ve learned!

  14. Happy to see the quote from John Ciardi, or rather from Ciardi’s translation of Dante. One of my top favorite poets ever, but not as well known now as he used to be, I think. Anyway, thanks for the reminder.

  15. I actually didn’t notice the exile theme until Tigana. But the importance of that book was actually (to me at least) was the degree encompassed by the exile I mean it wasn’t just an individual, family, town, or even a specific nationality. It was the totality-even immigrants who had recently made their homes there. Just the broad scope of people residing there and by association relationships (familial and otherwise) etc was mind blowing. It was a tour de fource not just anyone could write, a well crafted tale and definitely one of the BEST novels in IMHO. You are in my top 3 favourite authors, and besides the fact The Fionavar Tapestry is my favourite partially because even just small parts are seamlessly woven into just about every novel you have written notwithstanding the different cultures which is frankly nothing short of amazing. But both are in a universe ALL by themselves_albeit different ones.! Thank You John for choosing Guy as the subject of the Big Idea!

  16. Right away, in Fionavar, we had Matt Sören exiled, and Aileron. And Torc’s father. Three in a row – in the first volume of the trilogy.

    To me, the lios also felt like exiles in the mortal world, even though they lived their entire lives there. They “come home” to a place they have never been (I forget the name, but it’s similar to Tir nan Og/Valinor), which is a strange thing, but it feels right for them, somehow.

    There’s also a sense in which the isolation imposed on Tabor, Finn, and one other I will not name for spoiler reasons is similar to exile, although those aren’t fully developed in the first book, only foreshadowed.

  17. Davor’s sojourn among the Dalrei is also very much a tale of exile (since he is separated from the others during the crossing – by his own folly and fear) both from his world and from his complicated and volatile family and he is thrust alone and unprepared onto the Plains. And the tale of Leyse and Lancelot in Daniloth is one of the most heart-breakingly beautiful 10 or so pages of prose I have ever read. I weep every time and I have read it aloud to several friends and they have wept too.

    There are reasons GGK is one of two authors on my hardback list (because I simply can’t wait any longer for my next fix). I even have his book of poetry (well worth it!!)

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