A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

The sailors say the rain misses the cloud even as it falls through light or dark into the sea. I miss her like that as I fall through my life, through time, the chaos of our time. I dream of her some nights, still, but there is nothing to give weight or value to that, it is only me, and what I want to be true. It is only longing.

A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

I discovered Guy Gavriel Kay several years ago when I returned to Fantasy. Originally I started reading A Song of Ice and Fire but quickly became burned out on the nihilism and onslaught of negativity in those books. Yes, the world is dark and often people are cruel, and nasty. But the world is also beautiful and people can be surprisingly selfless, heroic, and noble. More often than not people can be both cruel and selfless, both heroic and nasty.

After almost giving up on Fantasy because I didn’t want to read nihilistic grimdark or the bloated door stoppers focused on magical power systems, I stumbled on Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana and fell in love with Fantasy all over again. Here was a modern writer that wrote beautiful literary fantasy with a depth of emotion not found anywhere else.

Kay’s novels are poetically written historical fantasies. Worlds and characters in fantasy worlds slightly different but recognizable. His poetic writing and focus on theme over plot give his novels an almost impressionistic feel, full of sorrowful and nostalgic moods invoking a hazy watercolor like experience.

Some of his past novels that I consider some of my personal favorite, are The Lions of Al-Rassan and A Song for Arbonne. The first takes place in a fantasy version of Andalusia during the Reconquista. Lions is as story about war, love, friendship, and loyalty, in a world that is ceasing to exist. The latter, and my favorite, is set in a Fantasy version of south-western France somewhat inspired by the Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade. A mercenary from the north becomes involved in a web of war and politics involving the Troubadour culture of the Arabonne’s Court of Love.

I read a lot of Kay’s novels but my interest in his work began to taper once he switched his focus away from European inspired work and began writing several novels based on Chinese Dynasties, a historical subject I don’t have much interest in. But, randomly I came across news that he was about to release a new work, a novel set in a Fantasy version of Renaissance Italy, which has been my historical obsession for the past year. I pre-ordered right away.

A Brightness Long Ago might be my Kay’s best novel to date. A thematically complex work focused on memory and the intersection of choice and fate. Our main character is Guidanio Cerra, a well educated son of a tailor now a powerful member of Seressa’s(Fantasy Venice) ruling council. He mournfully recalls his youth where his life crossed paths with two powerful feuding Condottiere Folco d’Acrosi and Teobaldo Monticola di Remigio, and the fateful events surrounding their final confrontation.

Guidanio’s recollections are written in conversational first person and filled with his philosophical and religious musings on memory, love, fate, and will. But other characters and sections are written in third person, giving us a complex and satisfying view of the personalities populating this world.

The beauty of this novel is not in the plot, which is painted with broad strokes, but in the interconnected depth of characters and in the theme of fate and choice. Several times in the novel minor characters make small, seemingly inconsequential choices that turn out to have life changing consequences in later chapters.

What I personally loved is the lack of linear logic in the chain of events. Sometimes things just happen. People just die. People get sick. People make irrational decisions that lead to catastrophic results. Sometimes your favorite loses the race and you go home. Sometimes the heroes don’t answer the call. Sometimes you luck out and win. Maybe the person you randomly meet is ends up being the love of your life, or maybe not, and you quickly forget each other.

As humans we tend to think of our lives, the past, history, as a logical linear progression and our brains invent a connected narrative. But, real life isn’t like that, the narrative is always tacked on with hindsight. The future is hard to predict due to the vagaries of fate and choice. A Brightness Long Ago captures this like no novel I’ve read before. For the first time in awhile I was actually surprised at some of the events without it feeling contrived.

The setting is beautiful and full of depth and the characters, from the major players to the minor ones that only stay with you for a few paragraphs are perfectly written. Connoisseurs of Italian Renaissance history will recognize Kay’s fantasy stand ins for the city-states, the mercenaries, the Medici, the Popes, and numerous other Renaissance personalities like Michelangelo. The world has a magical quality but also feels real and more complex than fantasy worlds developed over numerous novels.

A Brightness Long Ago is a fantastic, beautiful, and elegant novel. The perfect mix of literary and fantastic writing. A novel that goes beyond plot, exploring complex theme, yet doesn’t sacrifice character, adventure, and magic. I have a feeling it stay at the top of my favorites for a long time.

Backstory is for Busters

But what makes you sit down and absorb lifeforms into yourself? Did it start with your father? Tell me about your mother, did she absorb lifeforms?

The thing I love about classic Sword and Sorcery like Conan is that Howard had no need for useless backstory. You find Conan chilling in some tavern, he hears about a wizards tower filled with loot, he decides to rob it freeing ancient gods and fighting monstrosities along the way. Simple, done, no bullshit.

Modern fantasy writers instead of focusing on the action would spend paragraphs boring me with the socio-economic role of said wizards tower in the city economy and how the looting economy would be disrupted by Conan’s actions. All of this following an in-depth two book background story on Conan’s intra-personal family relationships and his estrangement from his mother causing him to be a wandering barbarian thief.

The nerdy obsession with over explaining everything is really a symptom of our current generations inability to deal with the unexpected and unexplained. Bret Easton Ellis in his book White talks about 70s and 80s horror movies and how they lacked explanation.


… movies made in the ’70s didn’t have rules and often lacked the reassuring backstory that explained the evil away or turned it into a postmodern meta-joke. Why did the killer stalk the sorority girls in Black Christmas? Why was Regan possessed in The Exorcist? Why was the shark cruising around Amity? Where did Carrie White’s powers come from? There were no answers, just as there were no concrete connect-the-dot justifications of daily life’s randomness: shit happens, deal with it, stop whining, take your medicine, grow the fuck up.

Bret Easton Ellis in White

Excessive backstory and explanation demystify, destroying fantasy and imagination.

I Put the Book Down

I’m on vacation. A much needed vacation. Much needed for my wife who bared the brunt of the unpacking, decorating, and taking care of the baby, while I was in Malaysia.

Yesterday she went hiking with her friend, so me and the baby had the day to ourselves. I decided a trip to B&N followed by In’N’Out would keep us entertained. It doesn’t take much to keep her entertained.

I like B&N. I like all of the big corporate bookstores. I like them more than small, dirty, dusty, hipster bookstores filled with snobby douche bags who often have poor taste. It was after all a hipster chick employee that gushingly recommended The Name of the Wind, the shittiest fantasy novel I’ve ever forced myself to finish.

I like getting coffee, walking around a large clean store, looking at things, picking up books, thumbing through coffee table art and gardening magazines, buying cookbooks. It’s all pleasantly middle class.

When I was in high school and had a car I used to ditch school a lot. I would wake up in the morning, get dressed, say goodbye to my family, and drive towards school. A few blocks from school I would take a hard right and drive to the beautiful two storied Borders Books. I would get some coffee and spend the day on the second floor reading, sometimes for eight or nine hours straight. My senior year I must have read over one hundred books. I got a F in English.

So yesterday I was thumbing through the Literature section, on the second floor of B&N. My usual bookstore leisurely pace was somewhat hampered by having to entertain an inquisitive ten month old, but it was a good time.

One of the employees came by to meet my baby, young girl, really nice. She brought her a cute fox book and asked me if I was looking for anything in particular. I told her I was looking for short story collections. I just finished Airships and wanted more litfic shorts.

She brought me a book by a writer I haven’t heard of. The cover looked really interesting, I actually noticed it on the shelf myself and meant to take a look at it earlier but got distracted. I thanked her and threw the book on the pile of stuff I was planning on buying.

Because I’ve never heard of the author before I decided to look her up. I immediately made the mistake of searching her name and clicking on the Twitter link that popped up. Every one of her posts were deranged anti Trump nonsense. I put the book back on the shelf.

An author being liberal isn’t shocking, it’s actually about as original as putting ketchup on your hot dog. Completely bland. I read liberal writers, I read conservative ones, dead ones, living ones, and everything in between. But I’m so tired of the hysterical nonsense that I can’t take anyone who continues to rage serious. It’s 2019, Trump has been our president for almost three years. He will be re-elected and will run the country for another four. Grow the fuck up.

The liberal aesthetic has dominated the literary and art world so much that it’s become completely boring. It’s cliche. I want a different viewpoint, a different perspective. I’m sick of the same cliches over and over.

Barbarian Book Club: 5 May 2019

I read a lot of books. This past week I read one novel, one memoir, and two short story collections. Before starting this post I bought eight books.

Every time I finish a book I tell myself that I’m going to sit down and write an in depth, detailed, well written review. A review worthy of a glossy literature magazine, something insightful that will make you run out and get whatever book, read it, and drive to where I am so you can sit around drinking espresso, smoking cigarettes, and discussing the literary merits of said book with me.

I never do.

So instead of writing critiques worthy of Harold Bloom I’m just going to let list a few of the things I’ve read recently and particularly recommend them. I’m also going to link to Amazon using my affiliate link. Why? Because this site costs me money to keep add free. 

Some Recently Read

Fight Club by Chuck Palaniuk. I saw the movie when it first came out. I was in high school and my brother and I came across it one day on cable. It blew our mind. One of my close friends became a Palahniuk super fan, guy read every one of his books numerous times, owned signed copies, convinced me to try one of the books. I borrowed Choke from my girlfriend and read it real quick. Didn’t like it. Too edgy in that try hard kind of way. It didn’t click with early twenties me so I passed on Palaniuk. Fiveteen years later I’m at the gym listening to the Bret Easton Ellis podcast and Chuck Palaniuk is one of the guests. Before he comes on B.E.E. talks about Fight Club, book and movie, and my peaks my interest. I loved the movie, maybe I should give the book a try. I did and don’t regret it. It’s well written, exceptionally creative, and quick paced. It captures that late 90’s hatred and nihilism that seemed to permeate everything. From a writers perspective chapter six is outstanding, a piece of prose with interrupting beets that reads like a charged punk song. Each scene is prefaced and interrupted by one of the “Rules of Fight Club,” the book is worth it for this chapter alone.

Airships by Barry Hannah. A few days ago I hit up all my homies on Twitter asking for litfic recommendation. I wanted something good, something meaty, something that read like the second pack Marlboro Reds washed down with cheap beer after a night of disappointment. My boy Neal delivered by recommending Hannah. Airships is a short story collection that blends the civil war with Vietnam, adds a dash of New York lit snobbery and flavors it with a dash of Southern Gothic. Hannah is a must read. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of him before. This is what litfic should be. No cat lady victimology knitting circles here.

The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 by Anthony Beevor. One of the best history books I’ve ever read. A brutal account of one of most intriguing and overlooked conflicts of the 20th century. The Spanish Civil war was a war where the losers wrote the history. It was the first massively propagandized war and so much of it is misunderstood or even deliberately misconstrued. The early sections describing the build up, the escalating hatred between countrymen towards each other is chilling, specifically in the light of our current political climate where the centrist position is losing ground to extremism from both sides. I highly recommend this book, not just for history buffs but for everyone.

White Rajah: A Biography of Sir James Brooke by Nigel Barely. I’ve always had a fascination with the South Pacific in the 19th century. I love the opium trade, jungles, China Clippers, trade companies, and all of the adventure that goes along with the great men behind the history. My favorite novel is Tai Pan and Hong Kong and its history is one of my favorite places I’ve visited. So a few month ago work decided to send me to the jungles of Sarawak, what used to be the Kingdom of Sarawak founded by the British adventurer James Brooke. Sarawak was ruled by the White Rajahs for three generations, well into the 20th century, and the last of the Rajahs was buried in Kuching in 2013. While the book itself isn’t that great, with a strange focus on Brooke’s homosexuality, I read it the first few days I was in Sarawak and it was cool seeing all of the places built by Brooke in person during my free time.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky The greatest novel ever written. Make sure you read this translation.

Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes. A comprehensive and intriguing cultural history starting with Peter the Great’s founding of St. Petersburg through the death of Stalin. The focus of the book is mostly on the cultural and civil life of Russians in the 19th century going into detail about Russian art, music, ballet, and the fascination and dual nature between the enlightenment of Western Europe and the Orthodox nationalism of the peasant. Some of the most interesting and painful to read chapters were about the plight of the artistic revolutionaries after the Soviet Revolution. Soviet true believer committees that turned art and literature into propaganda for Stalin only to be denounced later and sent to the death camps themselves.

I read a lot more, but this should do for now. A few of the books I’ve read deserve more in depth reviews, specifically White by Bret Easton Ellis. Other books were too historically technical, obscure, or instructive to merit a recommendation.

23,803 Miles, Sarawak, and Home Again

It’s exactly 6 AM and I’ve been wide awake for almost two hours. The sun isn’t up and I’m already on my second cup of coffee. Since I’ve returned I’ve been waking up earlier than usual so I might as well be productive. I’m starting to like the morning.

View from my hotel room. Kuching, Malaysia.

My last transmission was on the 4th of March. I was across the Pacific in Okinawa, Japan. I was living in a bare barracks room with horrible internet and hideous decor. I spent most of my free time smoking cigars, drinking beer, and getting reacquainted with Dostoevsky. It rained a lot. That warm, humid, Japanese rain. Miserable.

In the past three months I’ve flown 23,303 miles. First moving from Japan to California. Then being sent back to Japan for work for a few weeks. After that I spent a bit over one month in Kuching, State of Sarawak, Malaysia. Now I’m finally home.

Moving my entire life across the Pacific is a surreal experience. Leaving a place, an entire country, an entire culture, and way of life is jarring and hard to describe.

In February I flew my family to our new home in California. I only stayed with them for two weeks then back to Okinawa to catch up with my coworkers so I could go on a project in Malaysia. It’s been weird coming home because when I arrived back in California what I’m calling home is more foreign to me than Sarawak. After all I only lived in my current house for a few days but spent the better part of two months living in a hotel room in Kuching.

Land of the White Rajahs

When I was out in the jungle my coworkers would talk about back home. It was strange because I didn’t really know anything about back home except what my wife described to me.

I got back on the 14th of April. Catching up, carving out my place, getting acquainted with the furniture. I have a new desk. New couches, new bed. Bought a grill, some patio furniture, domestic stuff so we can enjoy the California summer.

The weather in California is nice. Growing up here I took it for granted until we lived in Japan. California weather is just right, a bland nice. After the 95 degree 90% humidity of Sarawak I like the niceness. But I do miss the jungle.

This past Thursday was my 36th birthday. I was born in 1983. Off the top of my head Ronald Reagan was president, David Bowie and Phil Collins ruled the radio and everyone wore hideous clothes. Of course I had no idea because I was just born and living behind the Iron Curtain. It was a good birthday.

I’m reading Barry Hanna, my coffee is cold, and my battery is low.