Review: A Brightness Long Ago

Posted: May 14, 2019 by in Books We Like...and Hate (3/5 single_star) Meta: Guy Gavriel Kay, Alternate Historical Fiction, Fantasy

Imagine you’re a chef and at your restaurant you only make one meal. It’s beautiful and satisfying and no one’s complaining about the plate of gorgeous food in front of them. In fact, you have plenty of repeat customers, because hey, a lot of people go to restaurants and order the same thing every time. Why venture into the unknown towards probable disappointment?

But no matter how great your one meal is, some of your customers are eventually going to wonder what the dessert menu might look like.

And that analogy is close to where I find myself as a Guy Gavriel Kay fan. I’ve been reading him for close to a decade now and I’m a completist (except his poems, haven’t read those). His books make me cry. They’re lovely and poetic and full of ordinary and extraordinary people alike trying to make good choices when the world doesn’t seem to give them any.

Even as a fan, I’m cognizant that his books tend towards a certain… sameness. He works with archetypes — the poet, the warrior, the artist, the lover, the priest — and continually revisits themes of fate and choice. He does it well, but while reading his latest offering I found myself wondering what else he has to offer.

A loosely tied companion book to Kay’s CHILDREN OF EARTH AND SKY (Amazon), A BRIGHTNESS LONG AGO (Amazon) is a meditation on the power of memory. Plucking a (very) background character from CHILDREN OF EARTH AND SKY Kay imagines a rich inner life and history for Guidanio Cerra. Danio is old now, and powerful, caught in a rush of memories from his youth as he sits in a council room in Venice Seressa, meditating on the unexpected ways his meeting with one woman changed his life.

That young woman is Adria of Ripoli. In a world that only offers two paths to women of her rank — marriage or the convent — she tries to carve a third path for herself, which is what brings her to Danio’s attention as she flees the scene of an assassination. She is also the niece of Folco di Cino and thus a player, however small, in the generation-spanning feud between Folco di Cino and Teobaldo di Monticola, which provides the central tension in the novel.

The exact nature of the feud is never important. There are too many incidents, slights, grievances — some real, some imagined — to untangle or to keep score. What’s important is the gravity of the feud, the way it warps and shapes the world, dragging Danio from the path that he’d chosen and involving him with more dangerous and powerful people than he’d ever imagined.

A meditation on the power of memory, A BRIGHTNESS LONG AGO hits all the right marks but the theme of nostalgia (ironically) pales with time.

Danio’s reflections are the major POV throughout the novel. First person is rare enough (in adult speculative fiction) because it requires a sustained character voice and doesn’t allow a lot of context, which Kay avoids by making most of Danio’s perspective a reflection of the past so that he can provide his own context. Perhaps it was just the setting in Batiara (Guy Kay’s equivalent of Renaissance Italy) but Danio’s perspective reminded me of a Browning-style dramatic monologue (See: “My Last Duchess”). Kay does switch POVs throughout the book, although these are presented in third person, so they are immediately distinct from Danio’s musings. As always, his small glimpses of other lives are poignant and interesting and I especially enjoyed the journeys of Jelena and Antenami Sardi.

While Danio’s voice is interesting, I thought that A BRIGHTNESS LONG AGO was not Guy Kay’s strongest novel, perhaps because Danio’s character, from whom so much of the story flows, was simply a little flat. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion to experience and a universal one, but it pales during an extended reading in contrast with more current and lively passions. For example, I would have loved to see more from Adria’s perspective, or even more of Folco’s.

My final recommendation is that if you’re sucker for books with extensive, well-researched reading lists in the back, you should check out this novel. However, if you’ve never read Guy Kay before, this probably isn’t the book to start with. Try TIGANA (Amazon) if you’re interested in a little more magic, or THE LIONS OF AL RASSAN (Amazon) if you want to cry your eyes out.

There are some really satisfying plot and character moments near the end that I felt like were some good pay-off for the journey; but just because I wonder what else could be on the menu doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the meal.

  • Recommended Age: 13+
  • Language: None
  • Violence: Several deaths, not too gory
  • Sex: A few scenes (with slow fades) and some explicit conversations

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