A Brightness Long Agoby Guy Gavriel Kay Published 14 May 2019
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International bestselling author Guy Gavriel Kay's latest work is set in a world evoking early Renaissance Italy and offers an extraordinary cast of characters whose lives come together through destiny, love, and ambition.
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.
"A Brightness Long Ago" Reviews
Extraordinarily profound, complex, lyrical and moving storytelling that deserves far more than the five stars I am able to award it. I have never read Guy Gavriel Kay before, so this was my first read, a historical fantasy, where the term fantasy is misleading because it is deployed to throw the most brightest and insightful of spotlights on the complexity of history and the chaotic reality of the contemporary world we live in. It mulls over the nature of power and memory, of how the future is shaped and turned by choices and decisions by repercussions that are unforseen, where the tiniest and the most apparently insignificant and minor person, and their interactions, play their part. The author gives us a multilayered story of what at first appear to be a disparate set of characters and their lives that emerge to give us shifting perspectives with an interlinked and overlapping web of connections, in this story of love, ambition, the rise and fall of influential characters, human impulses and fate.
This is set in Batiara, a version of Italy in the early Renaissance, evoked through a richly textured, subtle and delicate world building. The novel opens on a explosive note, Danio Cerra is now an old man, reflecting on his memories of his earlier youth in the most turbulent of times. Danio was a tailor's son whose intelligence secured him entry to a school of privilege and mixing in circles that would ordinarily be out of reach for those of his social status, and which is to place him in a powerfully dangerous milieu. This leads him to the court of the Count, the beast, and his fateful encounter with the feisty and noble Adria Ripoli, on the verge of assassinating the beast. Adria challenges her role and expectations of her to live and do what she wants to do. He comes to find himself in close contact with Teobaldo Monticola and Folco Cino, intense rivals and mercenary commanders. Vibrant pictures of minor and fringe characters, such as that of Jelena, the healer, have their own unexpected importance.
Gabriel Gavriel Kay's epic and expert storytelling makes the kind of impact that left me admiring his considerable talents as a writer. He is astute and remarkable, compassionate in his humanity in capturing an era and a place, with insights that can be applied to our world today. He spins a thought provoking tale that is more than the sum of its parts, creating an enthralling, compelling and charismatic set of characters, the important, yes, but the greater focus on the more marginal people, that cannot fail to capture the reader's interest. This made for an indelible, exhilarating and memorable reading experience which I recommend highly to those looking for something different with depth. Many thanks to Hodder and Stoughton for an ARC.
This will be longer than my usual review because I have a lot to say. And I will attempt not to do spoilers.
First of all, this book comes out in May. I received a free advance copy. I don't think that affects my review. I virtually know Guy Gavriel Kay and hope to someday play cribbage with him.
So, to start with, in the intro in the ARC, Kay observes that our brightest and most lasting memories are usually from our late teens and early twenties. Which sent me to research that right away. If you know my books, you know I have a fascination with memory, and with information stored in our brains and yes, in our blood. So the articles on memory that I read supported what Kay said, and I plunged enthusiastically into the story.
Fantasy is a genre that is a huge umbrella. In my opinion, fantasy is the umbrella that covers all fiction. In this case, this fantasy is set in a world somewhat like Italy, with characters somewhat like historical persons in a time rather like the Renaissance. If you love those times, it will add to your enjoyment of the book. If you knowledge of that place and time is limited or non-existent, don't worry. It doesn't matter.
This is a book about people. The fantasy element is a subtle flavoring, as in a delightful cake where you can't quite identify what you are tasting, but you enjoy it. Some of the people you will meet may seem trivial to the plot. "Why are you telling us about this shoemaker?"
Because Kay knows that, at heart, we are all little people in the greater story we live in. Even the most puffed up and important of us will be a tiny note in history, a few hundred years from now. Yet each of us (as my Fool would remind us all) changes the world every day. So it is with these characters. Painted vividly, these characters are each the main characters in their own stories. Each of them diverts the sequence of events into a slightly different track. Chance encounters become fate.
Of these characters, Guidanio is arguably the most important. He is our guide to that brightness long ago, although he is not always the speaker in the tale. Like the bits of glass in a kaleidoscope, each character shakes the tube, and we see the brightness shine through their opinion of what really happened. Events turn and spin as we regard them from multiple angles.
And finally, my favorite pages in the ARC are 240-243. I don't know if the pages will have the same numbering in the final hardback, but I suspect most of you will know what I loved when you encounter it.
If you've been reading Guy Gavriel Kay for years, then this book will bring an added richness to that experience. IF this if your first book by Kay, don't hesitate to dive into the tale at this point. You will not feel confused nor excluded from the larger story lines that others will see.
On sale May 7, 2019! This is really an excellent historical novel, with light fantasy elements. If you haven't read one of GGK's recent novels, you owe it to yourself to give him a try. Final review, first posted on Fantasy Literature:
Guy Gavriel Kay writes magical books. Not magic in the sense of mighty wizards and spellcasting with unicorn-hair wands and cauldrons bubbling with potions best not tasted. The magic in Kay’s novels is a more elusive thing. He takes a plot and cast of characters, ones that would be interesting enough even in the hands of lesser authors, and turns them into something extraordinary through his lyrical and profoundly thoughtful storytelling, his insights into human character and motivations, and his musings on life and its meaning.
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.A Brightness Long Ago, like most of his recent novels, is what Kay aptly describes as “history with a quarter turn to the fantastic.” It’s a prequel of sorts (though a stand-alone read) to his equally excellent 2016 novel Children of Earth and Sky, set some twenty-five years before the events of that novel, in a slightly fantastical version of Renaissance Italy, here called Batiara. (I spent more time than I should have, researching to figure out the real-life counterparts of all the cities and historical characters that play a role in this story. Seressa is Venice, Rome is Rhodias, Sarantium is Constantinople, and so forth.) Inspired by the feud between historical figures Federico da Montefeltro and Sigismondo Malatesta, two great military leaders, Kay tells of the clashes ― both military and personal ― between Folco Cino, lord of Acorsi, and Teobaldo Monticola, lord of Remigio. Their lives, and that of Folco’s niece Adria, a rebellious duke’s daughter, are seen through the eyes of Guidanio (Danio) Cerra, the son of a tailor.
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.
Danio, who narrates most of the tale as the reminiscing of an older man, is chosen to receive an education with the children of nobility because of his intelligence and quickness, raising him far above his humble beginnings. After finishing his schooling he obtains a position in the palace of Count Uberto, known as “the Beast” for his violent and even murderous sexual proclivities.
There were stories of youthful bodies carried out through the smaller palace gates in the dark, dead and marred. And good men still served him ― making their peace with our god as best they could.But Falco (admittedly for his own self-serving reasons) and his niece Adria have concocted a scheme to bring Uberto down. They set Adria up in a farmhouse outside of the city and eventually, almost inevitably, word of the attractive farm girl comes to Uberto and she is summoned to his palace. When Danio sees Adria being brought to Uberto’s suite of rooms and recognizes her as the duke’s daughter who once visited his school, that recognition could be deadly to either Danio or Adria. Or it might prove of immeasurable benefit to both of them.
Balancing acts of the soul. Acquiescence happens more than its opposite ― a rising up in anger and rejection. There are wolves in the world, inside elegant palaces as well as in the dark woods and the wild.
A Brightness Long Ago follows Danio and Adria, Folco and Teobaldo, and others through the next year or two, as their lives touch and separate and then interweave again. Adria is a particularly bright spark, a spirited and courageous young woman who is doing her best to live a life outside of the normal restrictions on noblewomen, though she knows the freedom she’s found can only be for a limited time. Doors of opportunity open and then close. Her participation in a particularly unusual horse race in Bischio is a high point in the story, where multi-layered plans and schemes of various characters collide in a truly spectacular way.
In his narration, Danio frequently comments on “the random spinning of fortune’s wheel” and how chance occurrences can affect the entire direction of our lives. Our lives aren’t always in our control. But he realizes that personal choices have an equal impact on the path of our lives.
Fortune’s wheel might spin, but you could also choose to spin it, see how it turned, where it took you, and she was still young, and this was the life she wanted.Kay weaves a pleasurably complex tale with a large cast of characters, but these characters are so vividly drawn and memorable that I never got confused. Kay’s storytelling evinces understanding and sympathy for even deeply flawed characters, even those who served the Beast and were aware of the terrible things he did to innocent youths.
I think, it is the best thought I have, that he was devoted to the idea of being loyal, in a world with little of that. That a man needed to drop an anchor somewhere, declare a truth, find a harbour… Perhaps in the darkest times all we can do is refuse to be part of the darkness.In his later years, Danio recalls the unforgettable characters from this time in his youth, who still shine as bright torches in his memory. Their brightness will linger in mine as well.
I received a free copy of this novel for review from the publisher through NetGalley. Thank you so much!
Content notes: A few scattered F-bombs; a mildly explicit sex scene; attempted sexual assault.
No matter the era, themes, characters, or plot, a Guy Gavriel Kay novel is always a marvel of narrative construction. Few authors can weave a tale in quite the same way he does, building a narrative that engages the reader as effortlessly as it flows from the page, and yet which, upon further reflection, is revealed to be a thing of complex beauty.
A Brightness Long Ago is a story told in offset layers, with one narrative thread overlapping another, repeatedly taking us back a step to view pieces of scenes from a different point of view, before advancing further into the narrative from there. It's a technique that could be jarring, disconcerting even, but in Kay's hands it enhances the story, building connections with the characters, even as it builds our appreciation for what he's accomplished.
It's not just a story of overlapping narrative threads, of course, but one of overlapping lives, and there is where the brightness shines strongest. Guidanio Cerra is at the heart of it all, a young man who comes into some very powerful, very dangerous circles. On the surface, it seems like a matter of right place, right time, but the more we read, the more we realize it's his choices - sometimes the simplest of choices - that guide him into those circles. The first circle he steps into is that of Adria Ripoli, a young woman about to assassinate the Beast. The lead-up to that act, the act itself, the escape, and the circle that follows, bringing Jelena, the healer, into the story, is more exciting than many novels, and that's less than 60 pages of a 560-page book.
The two biggest, boldest circles are those of Folco Cino and Teobaldo Monticola, rival mercenary commanders with a shared history. It's a rivalry that threatens to spill over into battle, with the threat of war looming large over the whole story, and yet that's not the focus here. Kay can do battles, sieges, and conflicts very well, but here he is less interested in the action and more in the motives, the relationships, and the personalities. The crossing of their circles is alternately amusing and tense, playing out over the turning of seasons, until it does finally come to violence. A smaller circle connecting both men, drawing Guidanio deeper into intrigue, is that of Ginevra della Valle, a beautiful Mistress who alters the course of fate with a word, a wink, and a wager.
Whereas so many fantasies are all about the story, with a quest or a conflict driving the narrative, we don't have that thread to follow here. Instead, A Brightness Long Ago follows the threads of the characters and their relationships, becoming more about the act of choosing than the choices we make, and more about the nature of memory than the memories we keep. Those overlapping circles, narratives, and characters are what make the story here, and it's a powerful one. By the time the story reaches its climax, it's almost shocking to see the way in which fate changes everything, and how the choices we make sometimes may mean everything to our lives, but nothing to the world.
“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 best 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 enrichen 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 of crafting his stories 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.”
10 / 10
A beautiful meditation on how seemingly small choices can have such great consequences, and on how people who come into our lives, even briefly, can change them. As Danio Cerra reflects on his life, on the great upheaval he witnessed in his youth, we see how small, impulsive decisions made by him and others brought dukes to their knees, ruined or saved whole cities, and changed the course of history.
This book also made me think about how much I love Guy's style. Not just the achingly poetic way he describes his world, but also how Guy will take a character, a face in the crowd, and show how their lives were affected by the larger events they witnessed, even if they had no part in them. A shoemaker in debt risks his last coins on a horserace, and we see how that changes his life, his children's lives, and those around them. A humble cleric on the side of the road takes on offhand remark by a passing soldier to heart, and goes on pilgrimage, and so on and on. Each life is important in its sphere, and some spheres just happen to be much larger.
And in the spirit of true confession: Yes, I do tear up every time he mentions mosaics. Damn him. If you don't know why, go read what I consider his best books: Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors. Go. Do it.