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.