A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

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Rating 10.0/10
A masterpiece; perhaps the finest work of one of the world’s greatest living storytellers.

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“We like to believe, or pretend, we know what we are doing in our lives. It can be a lie. Winds blow, waves carry us, rain drenches a man caught in the open at night, lightning shatters the sky and sometimes his heart, thunder crashes into him bringing the awareness he will die. We stand up, as best we can under that. We move forward as best we can, hoping for light, kindness, mercy, for ourselves and those we love. Sometimes these things come, sometimes they do not.”

Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Brightness Long Ago is a masterpiece; perhaps the finest work of one of the world’s greatest living storytellers.

Set in the fictional nation of Batiara (serving as a near-proxy for 15th century Italy), Kay effortlessly drifts through a complex narrative while developing a wide cast of fully-realized characters. The reader experiences some of the same events through several different viewpoints, gaining multiple insights that helps to enrich the story’s depth. The plot is reminiscent of The Lions of Al-Rassan as most major events swirl around two charismatic adversaries, mercenary captains Folco d’Acorsi and Teobaldo Monticola di Remigio, neither of whom can be easily defined as good or bad men. They have both made a career out of being hired by powerful city-states to wage war and expand their employers’ territories, and have been finding themselves on opposite sides of the battlefield for decades. Their history of hate runs deep.

But the story isn’t always centered d’Acorsi and di Remigio. Although their presence casts heavy shadows throughout the book, Kay chooses to spend most of the narrative through the eyes of characters who dance along the outskirts of these historic events. Most of these characters will not find their way into history books, but their influence on the world are just as powerful. These lesser-known players on the periphery are catalysts for change, and their impulses inadvertently help shape the world.

“An encounter on a springtime road. The random spinning of fortune’s wheel. It can sway us, change us, shape or end our days.”

Guidanio Cerra is the leading first-person POV in the story; we start and end with Cerra’s narrative, as his sections of the book are shared memories told from the later years of his life. Adira Ripoli is a noble’s daughter who defies her station through adrenaline-fueled assassination missions and high-stakes horse races. Jelena is a pagan healer with a supernatural sense of the spirit world and keeps finding herself amidst powerful players on the cusp of death. We spend time with dukes, High Patriarchs, scholars, soldiers, and many others as their lives drift in and out of some of the most important moments in the nation’s history. Some grow. Others die.

Throughout the story, Kay keeps exploring the consequences of impulsive decisions and the chaos that spawns from them. Decisions such as hanging around a hallway for an extra minute, or turning your horse north instead of south – all are actions that one thinks nothing of at the time, but their repercussions can last beyond your lifetime. Interestingly, Kay challenges this theme by offering the possibility of divine intervention. Depending on your level of faith, this is one of the very few times the book veers into ‘low fantasy’ territory. It asks the reader to contemplate the existence of God, and if God plays a role in impulsive decision-making and its oft-fatal outcomes.

Around the halfway point to the novel, there is an interlude that feels deeply personal. Kay outs himself by breaking the fourth wall and commenting on the nature of stories, how they are told, how they spread, and the reader’s role in experiencing it all. It feels like Kay is sharing his wisdom gained from a lifetime writing for a worldwide audience.

This story is shocking, devastating, and beautiful. Kay’s language is elegant in its simplicity, yet painstakingly profound as it cuts to the core of what makes us think, and act, and remember. Time and again you may guess where the story’s heading, only to be wrong over, and over again. Passages were read and re-read, and tears were shed more times than I care to admit. I believe that A Brightness Long Ago is a book I will revisit throughout my lifetime, with hope that I will gain new perspectives as my memories change or linger, and my feelings grow or fade.

“Shelter can be hard to find. A place can become our home for reasons we do not understand. We build the memories that turn into what we are, then what we were, as we look back. We live in the light that comes to us.”

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