A Brightness Long Ago is the fourteenth novel from Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay, and follows the recollections, later in life, of Guidanio Cerra, as he reflects upon the curious and often entirely unpredictable consequences of the choices we make, and choices made for us by the world. Set in the same world as many other Kay novels, such as The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Sarantine Mosaic, A Brightness Long Ago has all of Kay’s trademarks: Gorgeous prose, compelling characters, and turns of plot and of phrase that can equally caress like a summer rain, or leave you feeling gut-punched by a world-class pugilist.
In a chamber overlooking the nighttime waterways of a maritime city, a man looks back on his youth and the people who shaped his life. Danio Cerra’s intelligence won him entry to a renowned school even though he was only the son of a tailor. He took service at the court of a ruling count–and soon learned why that man was known as the Beast.
Danio’s fate changed the moment he saw and recognized Adria Ripoli as she entered the count’s chambers one autumn night–intending to kill. Born to power, Adria had chosen, instead of a life of comfort, one of danger–and freedom. Which is how she encounters Danio in a perilous time and place.
Vivid figures share the unfolding story. Among them: a healer determined to defy her expected lot; a charming, frivolous son of immense wealth; a powerful religious leader more decadent than devout; and, affecting all these lives and many more, two larger-than-life mercenary commanders, lifelong adversaries, whose rivalry puts a world in the balance.
A Brightness Long Ago offers both compelling drama and deeply moving reflections on the nature of memory, the choices we make in life, and the role played by the turning of Fortune’s wheel
The structure of A Brightness Long Ago (hereafter just Brightness) is similar to several other of Kay’s works, most notably The Lions of Al-Rassan. We have characters from varied classes and walks of life, finding elements of their lives intertwined and separated as the course of fate and time impacts them. We have the concept that small or seemingly inconsequential decisions can have far-reaching consequences. We even go so far as to have two skilled military men, often on opposing sides, with a remarkable woman healer thrown into the mix. There those similarities end, thankfully (I don’t think my heart could have taken a repeat of the lives of Roderigo Belmonte and Ammar Ibn Khairan), and instead we are treated to a mediation on the nature of truth, of politics, of war.
In seeing other reviews of Brightness, one of the common threads I see is perhaps too substantial a focus on the theme of small choices having large consequences or the unpredictable nature of fate. They are definitely overarching themes, but the sense I took from the novel was less that it was about that, and more that it was about how you tried to live your best life in spite of that. Adria Ripoli and Jelena especially struggle often against expectation and requirement. While the twists of fate that keep bringing them into the greater circles of the major players absolutely impact their lives, I felt this was less important to them than the striving to live the lives they wanted. Even Guidanio, explicitly musing multiple times on the subject, never truly seemed to accept the often arbitrary nature of action and consequence. It was acknowledged, often with a certain fatalistic acceptance, but that never stopped him from treating each choice and decision with the weight that suggested he was as yet unwilling to give in to the tide of fate.
The only caution I could contrive to give you when deciding whether to pick up Brightness to read for yourself, is that Kay’s writing is almost notoriously paced. There is virtually no ‘action’ as it is usually defined in SFF, and it is common for chapters to be nothing but dialogue and internal monologue. To some people this is a bug, but this is probably the easiest way to sum up, in a nutshell why I love Kay’s writing so much. The strength of Kay’s work is that the focus is not on what the characters do, but who the characters are, and what they think and feel. Events happen around them, events from the past are remembered, but even when the events directly involve them, everything is told very deliberately and carefully communicating more about what the events mean than what they are. It can take some getting used to, but for my money, Kay’s style is easily the best in the genre.
It would be entirely expected for the portion of Brightness dedicated to the conflict between the mercenary captains D’Acorsi and di Remigio to focus around their battles in opposition, maybe even a duel between them. The first time we see them together in one place, the person in the middle of them is convinced there’s no chance she will live to see the morning. Instead, an extremely careful conversation, over tea quite civilly, still manages to carry all of the weight of a pitched battle, and with almost as large an outcome as the battle might have had. All through what might seem a ‘slow’ scene in a movie, but which was fraught with implication and subtle nuance.
Altogether, A Brightness Long Ago was every bit the tremendously enjoyable read I’ve come to expect from Kay. As somebody who has read every novel Kay has produced, I’m certainly biased on the subject, but if you are a Kay reader already, rest assured, the side has not been let down at all. In fact, I think that A Brightness Long Ago has snuck into third place for me in the Kay Bibliography (After The Lions of Al-Rassan and Tigana in that order) which almost certainly means it has a hard lock on my top novel of the year for 2019. A fantastic read.
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