A Brightness Long Ago Is a Fantasy Epic About the Shaping of History

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog
I have a few of what I call “rainy day authors,” those writers whose works I savor; their books are so perfect and beautiful that I hold onto them for the times when I’m feeling burned out on reading and need a book that I know will pull me inside its world. My rainy day authors are people like Neil Gaiman, Daniel Abraham, and Elizabeth Bear, but the name at the top of the list is Guy Gavriel Kay, that beloved Canadian fantasist and most skillful crafter of heartfelt historical epics.

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-RassanThe Sarantine MosaicChildren 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.

A Brightness Long Ago is available now.

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A Collision of History and Memory: Guy Gavriel Kay Discusses His New Novel A Brightness Long Ago

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

In A Brightness Long Ago, the latest novel by Guy Gavriel Kay, longtime readers will encounter the elements they’ve come to expect: Epic historical events set in an exquisitely detailed milieu—this time, an analogue of fifteenth century Italy—delivered through the prism of the fantastic.

How this novel differs from previous offerings is in its focus on one the intimate experience of one man, told from the first person. His perspective is juxtaposed with those of others, but overall the tale remains his version of events. As history unfolds, we are urged to recall the ways in which even the most world-changing events are experienced differently by each individual.

I caught up with Guy Gavriel Kay to talk about the themes of this novel as compared with previous ones, his choice to write the protagonist in the first person, and more.

In a letter you wrote that was attached by the publisher to advance copies of A Brightness Long Ago, you note that we are psychologically and neurologically programmed to internalize the memories from our teens until our mid-twenties more intensely than any other time of life, a fact that is an underpinning to this book. Do you care to expand on that thought?
There’s a wry aspect to this, as my psychoanalyst brother (to whom this book is dedicated) mentioned this to me 15 or so years ago! When I started writing this novel, using as one of the point of view characters—a man looking back on events form his twenties that loom large for him—that conversation came back from my memory! I asked my brother and he sent some scholarship on the subject.

It wasn’t strictly necessary for me at all, but I always like when some research can underpin things I do in the books (from female doctors in Al-Andalus [in The Lions of al-Rassan] to the politics of exile and return in Song Dynasty China [in Under Heaven and River of Stars] to a small city of raiders on the Dalmatian coast [in Children of Earth and Sky]). I like the idea, for this book, that not only are these recollections of that time genuinely dramatic, worth remembering, but Danio Cerra is more likely to remember them because of this aspect of our collective nature.

Of course memory is always selective, erratic, sometime self-indulgent, and this plays a role in the book, too. He says at one point he remembers those years as if a wind was always blowing… even though he knows it isn’t so at all.

Memory has been a strong theme in your books. While Tigana is about the interplay of individual and national memory, and River of Stars is—broadly speaking–about the perils of historic memory, in A Brightness Long Ago, the focus is on one man’s intensely personal memories against the backdrop of historic events.

What do you think it is about this theme that leads you to return to it in different ways in books that are dramatically different from one another?

I think you are right, but I’m not sure any artist can truly pin down why certain motifs engage them, seen (as you say) in varying and sometimes opposing ways. I honestly think it flows naturally when you write about history, even with my “quarter turn” to the fantastic. Why does the past matter? (Does it, some might ask.)

And we deploy history so politically, always (not just today). We choose what we want to extract (or remember) of previous events and times. Two people remember their first meeting (or their breakup!) very differently. Two historians look at the past of a culture or country in dramatically different ways. All of this fascinates me, on both the micro and the macro levels.

A Brightness Long Ago is the first of your books to employ the first person point of view. Can you talk about this choice, its inherent challenges, and its opportunities? Did you learn something about yourself as a writer, from employing this technique for the first time?
I worried about it, because I knew it would be only one of many voices in the novel. That’s been done, but not often. In the writing, however, right from the start, it felt natural. (I’ve done a lot of first person poetry, of course. Not same thing, but some of them are characters speaking in first person, not me.)

The first person voice, someone looking back, opened the window for me to explore some of what you’ve raised above—the meaning of looking back. How we see our lives, and our time. From a craft point of view, it felt to me (this was unexpected) as if this even becomes an aid to readers as I switch perspectives. When we get to first person, we know who we are with.

In Tigana and A Song for Arbonne, the protagonists are empowered to shift historic events. In particular, in Arbonne, the protagonists reverse what in real life was a historic atrocity. This is in contrast to your later books, in which the currents of history are inexorable even for the most heroic figures. Can you comment on this gradual change of perspective?
I don’t think in terms of a collective view in my works, nor any deliberate migration of tone or theme. If you think about it, France “winning” the Albigensian Crusade is just as much an impact on the time as Arbonne causing an invasion not to succeed, In other words, within the framework of the story, it isn’t anything different. One side wins, one loses, people (or the forces of history!) caused each. You are right that the novel explores or raises how our world might be different if certain things had fallen out otherwise. I do the same thing in Lord of Emperors, as to the real-world invasions of Italy by Justinian and Belisarius.

You are also right, I am sure, that there’s a shift in what engages me, how I see the world and even the purpose of writing. What one wants to do with a novel. I really do believe if we are the same person at sixty that we were at thirty, and the same artist, something’s awry in our growth. Not trivially, for an writer, this can mean gaining some passionate readers, and distancing some. Not everyone wants to move to a new part of the forest, as it were, just because a writer does. My own great good fortune has been that I seem to have readers willing to explore different takes and perspectives and aspirations with me. That’s nothing less than a gift.

A Brightness Long Ago is available May 14.

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