His work has been described by fellow Canadian author and critic Robert J. Wiersema as history shifted a quarter-turn to the fantastic. For inspiration, Kay looks behind us, throughout humanity’s history; his works are largely retelling true tales transposed to fantasy worlds both reminiscent of our own and slightly changed. Under Heaven takes its inspiration from Tang dynasty China, Tigana looks to medieval Italy, and The Last Light of the Sun echoes the Viking invasion of Saxon England. Perhaps his most famous setting, and certainly his most widely-used, is an imagined version of Europe and the Middle East that serves as the setting for The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Sarantine Mosaic, Children of Earth and Sky, and his newest novel, A Brightness Long Ago.That book begins when Danio Cerra unwittingly aides in the murder of a tyrant and soon finds himself on a journey that will take him across Batiara and thrust him into the path of events greater than he could ever imagine. It also tells the story of young Adria Ripola, an impressive and rebellious heiress, who, with blood on her hands, rides with her uncle, famed mercenary Falco d’Acorsi; together they look to change the world. Across the battlefield from d’Acorsi stands his lifelong rival, Teobaldo Monticola, and his ambitious mistress, Ginevra dalle Valle, who look toward an uncertain future.
As with all of Kay’s novels, there are smaller personal journeys intertwined with these major narrative arcs. Alongside Danio, many other people play a part in the tug-of-war between Monticola and d’Acorsi, including a healer named Jelena, who flees the expectations of her family and community and whose talent will change the course of history; Antenami Sardi, the bumbling, goodhearted scion of a powerful family; and a young Duke Ricci, whom we first met in Children of Earth and Sky. Through these characters, Kay shows readers how small events and seemingly inconsequential people can have profound effects on the order of the world.
Through an interlude that breaks down the wall between reader an author, Kay muses about the nature of storytelling in a remarkable way.
So many stories can be told, in and around and braided through the one we are being given. Don’t we all know that stories can be sparks leaping from the bonfire of an offered tale to become their own fire, if they land on the right ground, if kindling is there and a light breeze but not a hard wind?
Someone is deciding what to tell us. What to add, what not to share at all or when (and how) to reveal a thing. We know this, even as we picture in our minds another young man, a tailor’s son from Seressa, remembering a spring ride, how we used to like to sing…
We want to sink into the tale, leave our own lives behind, find lives to encounter even to enter for a time. We can resist being reminded of an artificer, the craft. We want to be immersed, lost, not remember what it is we are doing, having done to us, as we turn pages, look at a painting, hear a song, watch a dance.
Still, that is what is being done to us. It is. (Ch. 9)
It is a fascinating thought, and Kay’s boldness in approaching it with such authorial voice is something only a master of the craft could hope to pull off—but Kay does pull it off, and this powerful thought lingers with the reader for the remainder of the novel just as it does with Danio. A Brightness Long Ago is very much a book about the stories we recognize in our own lives, and how we become active or passive in their tellings. One recurring theme, constantly on Danio’s mind, is how fate often turns on single moments and solitary decisions. Sometimes you can mark these moments as they’re happening. Sometimes you only recognize them with the benefit of experience and hindsight.
The beauty of Kay’s writing is evident on every level, from his perfectly shaped plotting to his deceptively simple prose. There’s a tautness and strength to the writing of this, his 14th novel, as though every word has been perfectly placed to serve and support the whole. Obvious care and attention has been paid to every chapter, paragraph, and sentence, but rather than feeling overworked, the resultant narrative flows like water.
It seems like the Sarantium’s story often comes in twos—The Sarantine Mosaic, which explores the city at the height of its power, is spread across two linked volumes, and now Kay has returned to that world again to recount the events preceding and following the city in the wake of its historic fall. Children of Earth and Sky took place roughly 20 years after the fact, showing readers familiar with the world how things had changed (or not). A Brightness Long Ago is a pseudo-prequel to Children of Earth and Sky, set in the months leading up to Sarantium’s fall to the Asharite grand khalif. Previous experience with the Mosaic and Children of Earth and Sky is not required to enjoy the new novel, however—A Brightness Long Ago stands alone as a compelling, perfectly tuned novel. (Though once you finish it, you’re likely to go racing to buy more of Kay’s books.)
Kay explores duality on a macro level—before and after—but it’s also a pervasive theme throughout A Brightness Long Ago on a more micro scale. Mercenary captains Teobaldo Monticola and Falco d’Acorsi often find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict, driven not by differing morals but by gold. Their relationship is much more complicated than that, however, and over the course of the novel their shared past, their equal reputations, and their hate and unlikely respect for one another are pulled apart layer by layer to reveal something profound and complex. Likewise, Adria and Danio come from vastly different backgrounds, but Adria chafes at the shackles of her gender despite her privileged and powerful family, while Danio, a tailor’s son, rises through the ranks of the patriarchal Bataria. Two sides of the same coin.
“We live, it might be said, in unstable times,” Danio muses at the novel’s midpoint. “Dramatic, interesting, magnificent in many ways. But not stable. You would never say that.”
Here, Danio is describing our world too—one rife with political and social upheaval. Kay uses fantasy elements to twist events in his secondary worlds, but the true magic is the way he uses fiction as a lens, sharpening the focus on our own world—our failings and successes, our fears and hopes. A Brightness Long Ago is about looking into the past and recognizing the way our stories come together—the moments large and small that define us, and the inevitability of change.
A Brightness Long Ago stands with the best of Kay’s work and the best fantasy has to offer. With each new novel it becomes clearer that his is an essential voice in the genre, if not one of its loudest. It is a novel as dramatic as it is profound, as readable as it is thoughtful, as powerful as it is exciting.
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