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Review: A Brightness Long Ago – Guy Gavriel Kay

A Brightness Long Ago - Guy Gavriel Kay

Genre: Fantasy

LGBTQ+ Category: Bi/Poly Gay (minor characters)

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About The Book

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 Review

I just finished Guy Gavriel Kay’s fantasy book A Brightness Long Ago. it’s a notable event for me in a couple ways. I’ve always loved Kay’s writing – I have the gorgeous cover art for his book Tigana framed on my wall – but I’ve only come back to reading in the last couple years since I was able to figure out how to scrape bits of time together for it again, and it’s probably been a decade or more since I’ve read one of his books.

It’s also the first time in at least that long that I’ve read a physical book – something I gifted to myself for my birthday and just got around to finally starting last month. I miss holding a “real book” in my hands. The text is easy on my eyes, and I love that I can just stick a physical bookmark in there to mark where I left off. I do, however, miss being able to pick up the story wherever I am without lugging a physical book with me. I go into more detail about the experience here, if you’re interested:

For those who have never read one of Kay’s books, most of his works are set in a fantasy version of historical Europe and the Middle East, and each one taps into a particular culture. In this case, it’s Renaissance Italy, a country and period near and dear to my heart. Mark and I have been students of the Italian language for fourteen years, and so I had an immediate affinity with the country (Batiara) and the character and place names. The pronunciations came easily to me – especially where to place the accents – and as I read more, I figured out why.

RIpoli (a family name) neatly echoes NApoli, the Italian word for Naples. The city of BIschio is just like the italian word RIschio, meaning risk.

And speaking of Bischio… the city’s clearly a stand-in for Siena, where the famous Palio horse races are held. Just like in Siena, the riders are chosen from each of the city’s districts. But I don’t think the Palio ever let the riders carry cubs to literally beat the other contestants on the racecourse.

Kay has an eye for these little details of cruelty. His world is often a violent, random place, and that’s never truer than in A Brightness Long Ago.

The story is told through multiple viewpoints, but the main three are Guidanio Cerra (Danio to his friends, Danino to his detractors), Adria Ripoli, and Jelena. In the background, a feud between two mercenary lords, Folco Cino and Teobaldo Monticola di Remigio, echoes throughout the story, as does the impending sacking of distant Sarantium, the city of cities in Kay’s world.

Danio is the everyman in the story, the vessel through which the story is funneled. His own recollections are presented in first person, while the others are done in third. He is often passive, drawn into events between great men and women of the age by chance and happenstance in a Forest Gumpian way, but he is also very self-aware. He knows the choices he makes will have consequences farther down the line (and they do), but he makes them in the moment, swayed more by immediate concerns than worries about the future.

Adria and Jelena are the exceptions that prove the rule in this male-dominated society. Destined ultimately for a Retreat (read nunnery), Adria is determined to live her life to the fullest before that happens, serving as a spy for her uncle (Folco) and riding in the horse race in Bischio. And Jelena is on a similar path, fleeing the responsibilities of family to become a healer, changing locations every few years as fate dictates.

The whole book is like a crazy pinball machine, with the characters ricocheting off one another and creating ripples throughout their worlds.

It’s also gorgeously written. There’s a lingering melancholy here, especially in Danio, who is looking back at events from a long distance. There are also moments of great excitement and amazing beauty in this uncertain world which the characters inhabit.

This is the first time I have read one of Kay’s books since becoming a “serious” writer, and he breaks a lot of our present-day writing rules here. There’s a ton of narrative description (we might call it info dumping), as well as backtracking into flashbacks that can slow the story down. Although there are only 3-4 main POV characters (Folco also gets a few turns), there are also deep dives into secondary character POV’s for arcs that last mere pages. And there’s the flip between first and third POV as we weave in and out of Danio’s point of view.

And yet… it works. My friend angel explained it best:

I think sometimes it’s more a matter of “be careful what you do as an unknown writer” rather than “you can’t write books that way.”

In other words, Kay is an established master, and he can do whatever he wants. And somehow pull it off, beautifully.

In addition to the two strong female characters, I was thrilled to see a fair amount of queer representation here, especially the two main bi/poly characters. But there are also other minor gay characters sprinkled into the novel, one of whom – Matteo Mercati – is an artist and dead ringer for Michelangelo and who has one of the best lines in the book (addressed to Danio, who is straight):

“I want to paint you. You don’t have to fuck me. Just sit for me.”

The death of a few characters (well, one in particular) grated on me, but I can see why Kay did it.

A Brightness Long Ago is a beautifully written love letter to Italy, and at its heart a thesis on how small decisions and events can change the world around us. If you’ve never read Kay, pick this one up and clear your calendar for a few days. And if you have, you’ll sink right into this one like a knife into butter.

The Reviewer

Scott is the founder of Queer Sci Fi, and a fantasy and sci fi writer in his own right, with more than 30 published short stories, novellas and novels to his credit, including two trilogies.

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