Book Review: “A Brightness Long Ago” (by Guy Gavriel Kay)

I’ve been a big fan of Guy Gavriel Kay’s for a long time now. He has such a command of language, and his books always manage to pierce the heart with their beauty and their engagement with the deeper, philosophical questions.

A Brightness Long Ago, set in the same world as several of his other books (The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Last Light of the Sun, Sailing for Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, Children of Earth and Sky), is a true gem, a pleasure to read from beginning to end. It is, in many ways, a prequel to 2016’s Children of Earth and Sky, and some of the characters make repeat appearances.

It is set in Batiara, a country splintered into dozens of squabbling city-states, most of which employ large groups of mercenaries to conduct proxy wars with one another. Into this nest of vipers fall several characters, two of the mercenary captains (who hate one another), the son of a tailor, the niece of one of those captains, a pagan healer, the High Patriarch, and the son of one of Batiara’s wealthiest families. Each of them ultimately finds themselves tested by this world in which they live, and while not all of them survive, those that do find their lives irrevocably changed.

One of Kay’s greatest strengths, I think, is his ability to convincingly conjure up a world that feels truly real. You almost believe that this is the Renaissance Italy of our world, even as you also recognize that this a world one step (or maybe a few more) away from our own. With each new novel set in this world, we get a stronger sense of the layers and textures that Kay is working with as he tells these fantastical tales. This cosmos is one with its own consistency, and it’s always sort of thrilling to see allusions and call-backs to earlier books, such as the mosaics from “The Sarantine Mosaic,” some of which continue to exist even several centuries in the future.

Thus, Kay remains concerned with the intertwining of memory and history, in how the choices that individual people make have consequences far beyond what they originally intended. Each of the characters in the book, even if they appear for only a short time, find that their actions reverberate across the nation they call home, both in the present and in the future. Likewise, each character grapples with how they make sense of a life lived, and this is especially true of Guidanio, the tailor’s son who eventually becomes one of the ruling Council of Twelve of his home city of Seressa. The only character whose part of the story is told in first person, and it his grappling with the events of that time in his life that provide the shape of the story and give it its emotional heft.

I would go so far as to argue that Kay’s books–more so, perhaps, than almost any other fantasy writer working today–are a philosophical rumination on what it is that makes us human and how we make sense of the chaotic and dangerous world in which we find ourselves. Certainly, Renaissance Italy/Batiara is a world away from our current moment, but there are surprising similarities. Like Guidanio, we all have to make choices about how we live in a fundamentally unjust world, and what we do (or don’t do) to make that situation better.

No review of A Brightness Long Ago would be complete without mentioning the fall of Sarantium. Anyone who knows me knows of my enduring fascination with and love of all things Byzantine, and I’ve always felt a particular ache at the thought of Constantinople falling to the Turks. Though Sarantium is a fictional version of it, its fall to the Asharites sends shockwaves through the world this fictional world.

There are many other things that I could talk about: the brief (yet touching) same-sex romance, a bi/pansexual character, the exquisite prose. These are all things that really set this book above so many others, and I cannot recommend it enough.

The worst part about finishing a Kay novel, however, is that you realize that it’s going to be at least two (possibly three) years before you get another one. Whether his next outing is set in what I would suggest is his best world or in some other, I have no doubt that, whatever it is, it will dazzle and enchant us as only Kay can do.