A Brightness Long Ago

I've said it before and I'll undoubtedly say it again. Every two or three years, Canadian speculative fiction author Guy Gavriel Kay releases a new novel that never fails to amaze me. For some unfathomable reason, though the man is definitely one of the very best fantasists of his generation, if not the best, I can't help but feel that he remains, at least outside of Canada (where he is a bestselling author), one of the genre's best-kept secrets. With unforgettable titles such as Tigana, The Lions of al-Rassan, Under Heaven, River of Stars, Sailing to Sarantium, and Lord of Emperors, Kay has set the bar rather high throughout his career. And I'm happy to confirm that A Brightness Long Ago is another memorable read that remains with you long after you've reached its end.

Like the majority of his books, Kay's latest is another captivating blend of history and fantasy. Having read the Sarantine Mosaic and Children of Earth and Sky is not a prerequisite for enjoying A Brightness Long Ago to the fullest. It is a stand-alone tale which takes place between the duology and the novel. Still, there are a few nuances that might resonate a little more strongly with readers familiar with the aforementioned works. In any event, you should read all of Kay's books if you haven't already!

Here's the blurb:

International bestselling author Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest work is set in a world evoking early Renaissance Italy and offers an extraordinary cast of characters whose lives come together through destiny, love, and ambition.

In a chamber overlooking the nighttime waterways of a maritime city, a man looks back on his youth and the people who shaped his life. Danio Cerra’s intelligence won him entry to a renowned school even though he was only the son of a tailor. He took service at the court of a ruling count–and soon learned why that man was known as the Beast.

Danio’s fate changed the moment he saw and recognized Adria Ripoli as she entered the count’s chambers one autumn night–intending to kill. Born to power, Adria had chosen, instead of a life of comfort, one of danger–and freedom. Which is how she encounters Danio in a perilous time and place.

Vivid figures share the unfolding story. Among them: a healer determined to defy her expected lot; a charming, frivolous son of immense wealth; a powerful religious leader more decadent than devout; and, affecting all these lives and many more, two larger-than-life mercenary commanders, lifelong adversaries, whose rivalry puts a world in the balance.

A Brightness Long Ago offers both compelling drama and deeply moving reflections on the nature of memory, the choices we make in life, and the role played by the turning of Fortune’s wheel.

Long-time Kay fans will be pleased to learn that the tale occurs about 900 years following the events chronicled in the Sarantine Mosaic books, just before the fall of Sarantium. Once again, the worldbuilding was inspired by the Renaissance era, during the heydays of the republic of Venice. Richly detailed as only a Kay work can be, A Brightness Long Ago enthralls you from the get-go. I'm not sure how he does it with every new novel, but Guy Gavriel Kay once again came up with an incredibly evocative narrative and an arresting imagery. It's likely due to the extensive amount of research that the author puts into every project. Once more, I feel that Kay captured the moods and nuances of his chosen setting to perfection.

I've said it a thousand times, but Kay's talent and imagination allow him to create a living and breathing environment that draws you in and refuses to let go. I don't know how he manages to do it, but Kay's worldbuilding is almost always a subtle thing. The setting never takes precedence over the story and he never relies on info-dumps and other such contrivances. Still, somehow, seemingly effortlessly, as the tale progresses Kay ends up with an elegantly crafted setting that never fails to dazzle the eye. Few authors can immerse readers in such a vivid manner, and Kay's eye for historical details and traditions imbues A Brightness Long Ago with a realism that is seldom seen in works of speculative fiction. Having said that, his latest is not a sprawling novel such as Kay's epic works like The Lions of al-Rassan, Under Heaven and River of Stars. Indeed, A Brightness Long Ago is not as vast in scope and is more reminiscent of Ysabel and Children of Earth and Sky. It's a shorter book, true, but one that nevertheless packs a powerful emotional punch.

Guy Gavriel Kay has always possessed a deft human touch and his past novels are filled with memorable characters. And once more, it's the superb characterization which makes this book impossible to put down. As is usually his wont, the author came up with a group of disparate men and women, whose paths will cross unexpectedly and whose fates will be spun into a vast tapestry of love and tragedy. Each of them is going through important changes in their lives. Back when Children of Earth and Sky was about to be published, Kay told me that as much as anything, he wanted that novel to be about non-powerful (not same as ordinary) people on borderlands in a time of war, trying to shape their lives (very differently) in difficult times. They intersect, some of them, with power, but that isn't the heart of the story. It was also important for Kay to balance the five of them, not let one character take over the book. Add to that his usual desire to also balance awareness of history and themes against characters, narrative drive, etc, and you ended up with a complex and satisfying plot on your hands. For the most part, the same can be said about A Brightness Long Ago. The difference is that the protagonists are "less important" people in the greater scheme of things who get caught in the periphery of influential men and women whose actions will cause world-shaking ripples that will change the world as they know it. Young Guidanio Cerra is at the heart of the tale. But his meetings with first the beautiful and mysterious Adria Ripoli, and then with Folco Cino and Teobaldo Monticola, rival mercenary commanders with powerful armies, will set him on an unexpected course. Jelena, a young healer who treats a wounded nameless stranger will also unwittingly be drawn into events that will change her life. Of course, all of these protagonists are well-defined and three-dimensional. Other than the High Patriarch of Jad, that is, especially early on. He comes into his own later on in the novel, but at first it felt as though he was more of a cardboard cutout kind of character.

It takes a while for the various storylines to come together. And yet, in typical Kay fashion all these threads do come together beautifully at some point and the author closes the show with style and aplomb. I loved how the decisions of minor players can nonetheless have grave consequences that will shake the world and echo down the centuries. Returning to the universe of The Lions of al-Rassan, the Sarantine Mosaic series, and Children of Earth and Sky was in itself quite a treat. I once asked Kay if he would ever consider giving us a book on the fall of Sarantium one day. It was nice to witness its collapse and the repercussions it would engender around the rest of the world. But I'm still hoping for a full novel/series focusing on the downfall and capture of Sarantium at some point.

Though the pace can be slow-moving at times, it is never dull. From start to finish, with Kay's lyrical prose the narrative is a joy to read. I don't know how he does it, but it often feels as though Kay can convey more in a single sentence than most of his peers can in a full paragraph or a full page. With A Brightness Long Ago, Kay demonstrates yet again that he is a master storyteller in complete control of his craft. This is definitely one of the speculative fiction titles to read this year.

The final verdict: 8/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe

4 commentaires:

Nick Borrelli said...

Great review Pat! I absolutely love Guy Gavriel Kay. I have this one on my TBR, I just need to actually get to it. I'm sure it will be brilliant as all of his other books are.

Fred said...

What kind of fantasy does he make? More like Jordan? Tolkien? Martin? Something else?

Patrick said...

It's a mix of history and fantasy, so nothing like the authors you mentioned.

Anonymous said...

I've always found him immensely interesting, but somehow kept being hesitant about starting one of his works. There does seem to be something academic about him, and this is true in his work.

But that aside I've only read Tigana by him. While there were great elements, unfortunately it doesn't remain very memorable to me. In fact some of it seems confusing and odd in a not-so-good way in hindsight (rather than just as "challenging"). But it's one of his early works, and they are clearly all very particular.

I am not trying to make a general judgment about him, in fact I would just say that his relative lack of popular success, as it seems, seems down to his "academic" vibe.