A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay
Book of the Month
“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.”
-- Adam Weller, 10/10
Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Brightness Long Ago is a beautiful story. It is vintage Kay, with prose that can only be properly described as art. It’s the sort of story that elicits emotion at nearly every turn. Sometimes aching and haunting, sometimes tragic and nostalgic. It’s a deeply personal tale about the small people who still contribute to great events, and perhaps in doing so have a measure of greatness themselves.
One of my first thoughts on finishing A Brightness Long Ago was that I would never be able to write an adequate review for this novel. To even attempt a review felt a bit like hubris. After all, any words I might put down to describe and quantify this story would only pale in comparison to the work itself. I could describe characters, plot, and setting. Each of these are excellent, beautifully crafted, world class in execution. But what stands out most about this novel is the feeling it left me with, the satisfaction of reading it. I often reread paragraphs for the beauty of the prose or to simply read again the profound thought or reflection being offered. Paragraphs like this one, which begins the novel:
“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.”
Each of the characters are vividly and lovingly crafted, multifaceted and complex. They feel real. And in some ways almost more than real. They are complex enough to allow us to glimpse, if only for a moment, those we have known who might share similarities with them. This causes them to be much more than characters on a page. They become people, real and breathing, or at least so it seems. It is exceedingly rare to find characters that feel so unique, so authentic. The characterizations stand out as exceptional even in comparison to those in Kay's other novels. As with all of his work, this one makes us feel deeply. For the characters we come to love and what they go through… but also for ourselves. The narrative style surfaces our own memories, mixing our quite real nostalgia and memory with that portrayed in the telling of the story itself. Where does one begin and the other end? How much of our memory is truth, and how much simply a hope of how we ought to have acted or wish we had felt? These sorts of questions blend seamlessly with a plot that is perfectly paced and set in a fully realized world. Much of Kay’s fiction, while technically secondary world, takes place in a world quite similar to Europe in various parts of its history. This story centers on Batiara, roughly analog to Renaissance Italy in our own world. Perhaps most importantly, Kay’s world is fully realized and the way he tells the story leaves no doubt in your mind that you are getting only a glimpse, fleeting and yet beautiful, of the lives taking place in this world that is so like and yet unlike our own.
This book, even more than Kay's other works, reads as a reflection on the vagaries of life. How we each manage, lives changing on a moment, a single decision, as we each make our way "under the god's sun." It's also a book about how our lives affect and change the lives of others, even when - especially when? - we don't intend it. Perhaps most of all it makes us think about the idea of memory, the way we may vividly recall those seemingly random happenings that shaped our lives many years later and turn them over in our minds, finding new meaning in them, or not.
I am not old. But in reading this novel I find myself reflecting on my own youth, my own formation. There is a sense in which our adolescence shapes us, for good and ill. We find those memories, I find those memories, especially vivid, moving, bright. Kay crafts a story here that is more than a story. It's a sort of memoir. A reflection on memory and especially on this tendency we have to remember vividly - if not always fondly - those days of our own liminality, or own becoming. Those events which most shaped us as the people we were to become. In the words of the novel, "perhaps it is true of every life, that times from our youth remain with us, even when the people are gone, even if many, many events have played out between where we are and what we are remembering."
This is Kay at his finest, his most reflective, his most powerful.
Calvin Park, 10/10
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