I was in Law School at the University of Toronto when The Summer Tree came out; I remember being amused by one of the central characters who is persuaded to come along by a promise of notes for his Evidence class (with Schiff, though Kay leaves the teacher's name out; but Kay went to U of T and would have deliberately chosen that course because of that teacher).
It made a big splash, and over the next couple of years the series was completed. It was a big piece of heroic fantasy which pulled out every stop it could - dark lord, elves, dwarves, Arthur, demigods; it showcased Kay's strength for pivotal scenes and introduced his tendency to deploy them for a somewhat manipulative effect.
Of all of the neo-Tolkienian authors of the 1980s and 90s Kay seems to me the only one who really picks up on Tolkien's theme of gradual loss over deep time and of reconciliation after a long fall: perhaps not surprisingly, given his involvement in the publication of The Silmarillion. The Fionavar Tapestry put at the centre of the story the possibilities of reconciliation and forgiveness over a very long time.
It also got classic High Fantasy out of Kay's system. Tigana was an entirely new departure, as non-Tolkienian as, say, Mirrlees or Eddison: a calque on Renaissance Italy, and with themes of group identity, revenge, freedom, and the trade offs that may need to be made in asserting "freedom".
As with A Song For Arbonne, however, the calque on history is not close. The Peninsula of the Palm has the air of Renaissance Italy, but its history is nothing like Italy's; and the equivalent of the Cathar crusade in Arbonne fails, as a result of the personal arc of the central characters. (Nor did the male/female god/goddess warlike/peaceful split parallel our history: if any historical figure from medieval France resembles the northerners, it's Bertran de Born.)
With the exception of Ysabel, which is a pendant to the Fionavar story with some additional European deep background, his subsequent books have been about individual interactions in the shadow of great events. Sometimes the core characters are central (Alfred the Great, El Cid) and sometimes they are peripheral.
The Lions of Al-Rassan is Kay's first book in the Jaddite / Sarantine parallel world. (Although the calqued-onto-history method is similar to that of his prior two books, they take place in different worlds. References to Fionavar, which is the base of all parallel worlds including our own do get into every book. And it's interesting to note that, given the latter point, it's certain that none of the Jaddites, Asharites, or Kindath are correct, as the gods are known in Fionavar and match none of their beliefs.) And it is the first to hew closely to our history.
It parallels the story of El Cid and the Reconquista in Iberia, but uses the freedom of alternative history to provide minor divergences, and, as in all of his works along these lines, his real focus is on the personal lives of his central characters, and with the ways in which minor chance occurrences or decisions can shape later great events.
If Tigana is about identity and liberty, and the costs they incur, Lions is about the tensions between tolerance and allegiance, and how personal loves and friendships cut across them.
Lions' characters are central agents. By contrast, the Sarantine Mosaic gives us a picture of a slightly modified Justinian and Theodora through the eyes of a peripheral figure, the mosaicist Crispin (and a history which diverges more from our own). By the time of Children of Earth and Sky Crispin's name has been forgotten and his mosaics - those which survive at all - vary between having been destroyed (Sarantium), being in the process of falling apart (the chapel in Trakesia) and being still significant (that world's equivalent to Ravenna). It helps to have read the duology before the latter book.
With a significant degree of variation, Kay explores the interaction between individual lives and personal intent (at one pole) and large-scale events with an impact on society (at the other) and the elements of chance and unexpected consequences which connect the two together.
Kay has been criticized for the use of "manipulative" narrative tricks to engage the reader emotionally. I see the tricks, but I don't think of them as major flaws so much as shorthand, the activity of an occasionally intrusive narrator in a literary world where intrusive narration is less popular than it used to be. (Another aspect of this is the way in which the perspective of the narrator can briefly shift to an historical one, referring to the state of a place, or a person's reputation, centuries after the end of the story.)
Children of Earth and Sky is classically Kay: four characters (a spy, an artist, a pirate and a Janissary) pass through and in various ways influence events following the fall of Sarantium to the Asharites (that world's analogue of the fall of Constantinople). Like Crispin in The Sarantine Mosaic, they are peripheral: their various actions just miss having an immediate major impact until the one whom one would think least likely - the artist - changes the course of events for the next couple of generations decisively. (The El Cid and Albert the Great
One obvious parallel is Dunnet's The Year of the Ram, set mainly in Trebizond in a similar time frame. Kay is not in a position to provide as close-grained an image of the life of the time and place as Dunnet is: he has to deal with the limitations as well as the advantages of a made-up world. But Dunnet can't alter the succession of events, and Niccolo remains a onlooker to a course of events he (by definition) can't really affect.
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