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.

Barbarian Book Club: A Moon Full of Stars

I started my 2018 with a bang, reading Jon Mollison’s A Moon Full of Stars. Jon is a novella writing, pulp revolution spreading, machine, whose writing seems to get better and better with each piece. amoonfullofstars

I’ve read some of Jon’s shorter work which you can find in Storyhack Magazine and through his website JonMollison.com. But A Moon Full of Stars was the first longer work and I was not disappointed.

Moon Full of Stars is an action-packed post-apocalyptic piece of insane pulp filled with pig-faced biker mutants, tribal hunters, rocket ships, artificial intelligence,  low gravity warped psychic puritans, and some really weird centaurs.

It’s an adventure story about two young rival hunters forced to band together on a quest to rescue their people from the clutches of mutant slavers. In the tradition of radiation-pulp and roleplaying games like Gamma World, our heroes must work together to overcome difficult and monstrous obstacles and maybe find love along the way.

The short novella format, abandoned in the past decades, suits this style of fast and frantic action. Jon manages to build a fully developed world populated with compelling characters in the same amount of space that more celebrated fantasy writers would use to describe a meal or a character’s dress.

Pick up Moon Full of Stars, have a beer or two, and enjoy the fun work of a writer who loves the Science Fantasy classics and the games inspired by them.

Read: 9 April 2017

I read moderately these past few weeks, a bit less than I usually do, but that’s mostly because of vacations and long work days. I also focused on short story collections and magazines, which take up a lot of time.

9 April 2017

Neuromancer by William Gibson. This is one of my favorite books so when I came across the $1.99 Kindle price I grabbed the digital version for a reread. Written in 1983, Neuromancer.jpgNeuromancer and I are the same age and I wanted to see if it still held up now that I have gotten a bit older. Aside from some edgylordy descriptions and 80’s style fatalism, the novel reads like something written today. Crisp, well written, and full of great scenery and action. It’s even more impressive once you take into account that half of the crap in the book that seems cliche was actually first created by Gibson. Cyberpunk is one of my favorite sub-genres and this novel was the original cyberpunk piece.

Suldrun’s Garden (Lyonesse #1) by Jack Vance. Another novel from 1983, Jack Vance’s first part of the Lyonesse trilogy is fantastic. A melancholy and remorseful fantasy novel, unlike anything popular today, reminiscent of pre-Tolkien fantasy with magic and fairies suldrunsgardenboth marvelous and sinister. This novel was so good I read the whole thing in one sitting, and now I’m waiting for a good day to do the same for the sequel. If you want to read fantasy different than the gritty hyper-realistic stuff out right now or the overwrought high fantasy of the 80s and 90s, give this one a try. You won’t be disappointed.

Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It by John Ferling. A fantastic overview of the American WhirlwindRevolution in the context of the times. This book puts a lot of focus on the cultural aspect of the Revolution and the events that led up to hostilities. It goes into significant detail, covering the major battles and even a few of the lesser known engagements. A fantastic read about a historical period that gets burdened with romanticized accounts due to it being covered mostly in the early years of one’s education.  I have a new found love for 17th and 18th-century history, specifically focused on the Colonies so this scratched that itch. I have a history of the French and Indian War and one focused on Colonial Spies waiting on my Kindle right now.

That’s about it for the past few weeks. I’m about to start Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister and then go through some histories. Then I think I might return to Robin Hobb for Liveship Traders.

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

 

“Learning is never wrong. Even learning how to kill isn’t wrong. Or right. It’s just a thing to learn, a thing I can teach you. That’s all.”  

Several days ago I found myself sitting outside my favorite San Diego coffee spot, sipping a hot beverage, and finishing the last chapters of Robin Hobbs Assassin’s Apprentice, the first in the Farseer Trilogy. The dilemma I was facing was how to disguise the fact that here I was, a barbarian, choking up with tears reading a fantasy book. I honestly can’t remember the last time a book made me so emotional. I won’t go into the details of the scene that got me for spoiler reasons but it deals with friendship of the highest order.

Even with my extremely busy schedule I manage to read a lot of books, most of them great, enjoyable pieces of fantasy or scifi. The greatest triumph and exquisitely rewarding experience is coming across a novel that blows your mind, makes me feel something beyond entertainment, makes me want to shove it in all my friends faces while yelling READ THIS NOW! Robin Hobbs Assassin’s Apprentice falls into this category. It goes on my badass shelf(digital shelf nowadays) of favorite novels next to Lord of the Rings, Dune, Hyperion, A Song of Ice and Fire, and the other masterpieces of the genre.

Assassin’s Apprentice follows the young life of a noble bastard Fitzchivalry thrust into the intrigues of court life in the Six Duchies and the peril it entails. As an illegitimate and ignored bastard Fitz gets recruited into the role of becoming the Kings secret assassin. Making matters worse the Six Duchies are being raided by mysterious Red Ships that leave nothing but devastation and despair wherever they appear. Fitz becomes the secret hand of the King, and this first book details his early education in the art of poisoning and political maneuvering.

The beauty of this novel does not lie in a grand plot but in Robin Hobbs fantastic characterization. Assassin’s Apprentice is a slow burn, a patient novel that builds up all of the characters and their relationships slowly with beautiful detail. It’s a adult book that focuses on questions about friendship, loyalty, duty, family, and even your choice of romantic partner. It’s maturity of voice reminded me of one of my other favorite books, The Curse of Chalion, by Louis McMaster Bujold. Both novels focus on character and relationship over plot and action and both novels are masterpieces of the fantasy genre in my opinion.

This novel belongs on the must read list for any serious lover of fantasy. The best part for me is that this is only book one of a long series. I get to finish typing this review and start the next book. So if you love fantasy consider this post the digital version of me shoving it in your face and yelling READ THIS NOW!

The Three Musketeers and Modern Fantasy

The Three Musketeers and Modern Fantasy

three_musketeers_02

Taking a break from my traditional fare of Fantasy and Science Fiction I decided to jump in and read through Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. For some reason I overlooked this novel in the past probably thinking that the plot was already spoiled due to all the spoofs and movies etc. I can’t even begin to describe how surprised I was when the book blew me away. Not only is it one of the best action adventures I have read but sets the bar so high for other books that I thought were original yet are surpassed by this fantastic piece of literature written 171 years ago. If you have not read this masterpiece do yourself a favor and pick it up, you will not be disappointed.

For readers of Fantasy one of the genre givens is that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is often the blueprint and baseline for all modern fantasy. Through Tolkien fantasy is also affected by his influences being Germanic and Anglo-Saxon mythology. Heroic characters, Epic world shattering battles, dark evil powers, elves, orcs, trolls, and dragons. But a lot of modern fantasy breaks from that mold and dwells in a perpetual gray zone. The hero’s are often hard to differentiate from the villains, the scale is often smaller, and the setting often grimmer. Dark epics such as GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire have only superficial elements in common with the heroic fantasy of Tolkien.

With the history of fantasy in mind I read The Three Musketeers and realized that for a book written 171 years ago it read like a piece of modern fantasy. At it’s core and thematically it has more in common with modern dark fantasy than LotR does. Reading it I could not stop thinking that if there was one or two semi-magical elements you could easily shelf the adventures of d’Artagnan next to Jalan Kendeth and Tyrion Lannister.

The Heroes or Anti-Heroes

Bunch of drunken rakes.
Bunch of drunken womanizing rakes.

The four Musketeers(yes there are actually four, it make sense once you read the book), would easily fit on the pages of current fantasy, the darker the better. Our main hero the young d’Artagnan starts off the novel as your typical poor farm boy out to join the King’s Musketeers and make a name for himself. That’s where the similarity ends tho because our d’Artagnan is an arrogant entitled jerk. He picks fights with everybody that looks at him wrong, beats his servant, tricks women into sleeping with him, and spends his days drinking and partying with his buddies. He’s not the hero the movies portray him as.

Athos, the oldest of the Musketeers is your typical wounded dark soldier. A dark sophisticated man with a hidden mysterious past who spends his days drinking his sorrows away and flying into violent rages. Athos is such a moody jerk that he forbids his servant from speaking, forcing him to only communicate by using hand gestures.

Porthos is the big foolish buffoon of the crew. A self centered man who loves fine food, fine wine, fine clothing, and fine women. His sole purpose in life is to weasel his way into older and richer women’s money so he could live comfortably without effort.

Aramis is the group hypocrite. All he talks about is giving up the warrior lifestyle and becoming a man of the church but secretly he is having affairs with noble women. He goes so far as to get into duels with anybody that even suggests he might be having the affairs, even when presented with proof.

The most striking thing I noticed when reading this novel was the fact that unlike the movies that portray them as heroes the Musketeers are quite a serious bunch of assholes. Yes they go on and on about honor and courage but they are far from your shining knights serving the king out of duty, they are a bunch of drunken adventurers doing it for gold and women. They thematically fit more into a modern crime movie about gangsters then your typical heroic portrayals they have been given. Not only that but a lot of the actions they take during the plot of the novel can be seen as treason or downright betrayal of duty to their King and France.

The Villains.

richelieu

The Three Musketeers has two of the greatest villains that set the bar high for their modern successors. The first being the Cardinal Richelieu a real historical figure that is the mastermind behind the events going on in the novel. Richelieu is the power behind the throne running the war against Protestant rebels and Protestant England because the King of France is a worthless childish wimp. Richelieu has spies and agents throughout Europe and has so much power that he can order assassinations and kidnappings on a whim. Reading the novel I could easily see him as an inspiration for characters such as Tywin Lannister, strong, driven men who lead from behind the throne.

OG evil
OG evil

The show stealing, best character award of the novel goes to Milady de Winter, the original badass court seductress and assassin. She’s the Cardinals number one Spy and the darkest character in the novel. She’s a evil bitter woman, twisted on the inside by greed, revenge, and envy. Shes so well written as a conniving seductress that after being in her point of view for several chapters you begin to sympathize with her only to be kicked in the teeth a few pages later when she does something batshit evil. Cersei Lannister has nothing on Milady who would make a perfect companion for Littlefinger.

The Plot

The novel is set in 17th century France during the Siege of La Rochelle. Protestant rebels are surrounded by the Kings Catholic army led by Cardinal Richelieu as the English led by the Duke of Buckingham are preparing to come to their aid. The plot of the novel centers on a clandestine affair between Queen Ann of France and the Duke of Buckingham. Cardinal Richelieu is determined to expose the affair to the King and use it as leverage in the war against England. The novel focuses on our heroes, Musketeers in the service of the king, who get involved in a tangled web of intrigue and romance between the powerful figures behind the scenes in both France and England. Lots of duels are fought, lots of women are won and romanced, and lots of wine is drank.

In closing I highly recommend this classic piece of literature. If you haven’t read it and you enjoy bad ass adventure you will not be disappointed if you chose to follow d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis around. I also think that a lot of modern fantasy should look at adventure novels like The Three Musketeers for inspiration. The intrigue, wit, focus on fantastic pacing, and action of Dumas’ masterpiece should be a baseline in all modern fantasy. A lot of current work should supplement the obsessive world building of Tolkien by implementing more Dumas style action and adventure.

P.S On the Importance of Translation.

If you decide to read the Three Musketeers please get the proper and modern translation. The best out there is the 2006 version translated by Richard Pevear. Other versions of the book, like the free kindle version are based on the original Victorian English translation and due to Victorian sensibilities downplay a lot of the sexual innuendo between the characters. Do yourself a favor and go for the best version.