A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay
I confess that I always dread just a little bit reviewing a new Guy Gavriel Kay novel. Not because I’m concerned it won’t be any good; Kay writing a bad book would have to be on anyone’s list of Impending Signs of the Apocalypse. But because what makes his books not just good but stand-out good is so damn ineffable.
Granted, not solely so. I can easily toss off a host of tangible, well-crafted elements, all the usual suspects: fascinatingly rich characters, compelling plots, immersive world-building, etc. But the single best reason I can think of for reading a Guy Gavriel Kay book is the supreme elegance and grace of his writing. Which also happens to be the single worst recommendation for reading a Guy Gavriel Kay book. “Elegance and grace?” the potential reader says. “What the hell does that even mean?”
Which is when I scrunch forward in my chair, waving my hands oh so animatedly and enthusiastically and say, “It means … It’s, you know … Like, when he … “ And then my mouth opens and shuts a few times like a trout pulled into a canoe, my hands fall limply to my sides, and I mutter a la Potter Stewart, “Well, I know it when I see it.” Meaning I’ve just aligned Guy Gavriel Kay with hard-core pornography, which is about as far from “elegance and grace” as I can imagine (not that I’m imagining, mind you). So yes. Always a little dread.
But here we are anyway, at yet another ineffable masterpiece in his newest, A Brightness Long Ago (2019). And thus once more into the breach …
Like most of Kay’s novels, this is a historical fantasy, one which returns to his version of Italy (Batiara) during the early Renaissance, opening a bit before the world-shaking fall of Sarantium, or, for those who know their Kay, about a quarter-century before the events of Children of Earth and Sky. The cast of characters include:
- Guidaniao Cerra, the young son of a tailor who managed to be educated in one of the best schools, placing him in the path of a more influential class. His is the sole first-person POV; the rest come to us via a third-person omniscient.
- The two mercenary captains Teobaldo Monticola and Folco Cino, famed both for their military success and for their long-standing feud, whose origins are shrouded in mystery though rumored reasons abound.
- Folco’s niece Adria, a fiercely bright and independent young woman seeking in his service a period of meaningful and active freedom before she is constrained into the less active (but no less impactful) roles offered to women of the era.
- The healer Jelena, whose wandering ways place her in more than a few fraught encounters with the dangerously powerful.
- Antenami Sardi, the oft-mocked, good-for-nothing child in the most powerful family in the region.
I described Cerra, or Danio as he’s often called, as young, but more accurately, we actually meet him first as an aged man, and it is his emotional recollection that makes up much of the story, until we return once more at the very end to his older self, making much of A Brightness Long Ago one long flashback, appropriately so for a story (and novelist) often so focused on exploring memory: its malleability and unreliability, its bittersweet ache of joy and sorrow intermingled, how it haunts us, how it eludes us, and how, perhaps, it answers the question of what will remain of us beyond our ephemeral existence.
Kay signposts this theme in lyrical, elegiacal fashion in the first few pages. First with an opening epigraph from a Czeslaw Milosz poem:
An instant is invincible in memory.
It comes back in the middle of the night. Who are those holding torches
So that what is long past occurs in full light
Then via an omniscient narrator who shows us:
A man no longer young … [who] finds his mind turning back to when he was, indeed, still young. We all do that. A scent carries us back, a voice, a name, a person who reminds us of someone we knew … We see only glimpses of history, even our own. It is not entirely ours — in memory, in writing it down, in hearing or in reading it. We can reclaim only part of the past. Sometimes it is enough.
And finally, via Danio’s own first-person POV:
The sailors say the rain misses the cloud even as it falls through light or dark into the sea. I miss her like that as I fall through my life, through time … I dream of her some nights, still, but there is nothing to give weight or value to that, it is only me and what I want to be true. It is only longing.
That passage has a concise beauty to it, and contains a wonderfully apt metaphor in the way it evokes so much of what we associate with memory: the way it has its own gravity, its own weight, and yet is also intangible; how it never ends but is called up time and time again (clouds to rain to sea to clouds to rain to sea to). The way it is only a foggy kind of truth, as Danio acknowledges later, thinking how “Memory is a troubling thing, some things … are vividly recalled (or we think they are); others … are difficult to recollect with clarity.” How both rain and memory have a dual nature. Thunderstorms and gloom, trauma and sadness (how many funeral scenes are done in the rain?). Spring showers and fond recollection, each regenerating the world, bringing the dead back to life. “Isn’t it also true sometimes,” Danio wonders, “that the only way a person survives after they die is in the memories of others?” This appears to be true for this world at least, even if it is a world where the dead linger a while after dying, enough for us, via that omniscient narrator, in some of the most moving scenes in the novel, to get a sense of their longing, their regrets and thwarted desires.
A Brightness Long Ago (the title itself refers to those memories of our youth that burn so deeply into our souls) also subtly mirrors the memory theme in its structure, for just as we cannot help ourselves from constantly looking back to earlier days, the novel does the same, with many a chapter starting by backing up in time relative to the one just prior, sometimes by just minutes, other times by months.
Besides being a reflection of theme, the structure also reinforces the interconnected nature of events and relationships in the novel and emphasizes as well another prominent theme, that of choice versus fortune (or choice melded with fortune; I’m not sure Kay offers up a definitive prioritization). As with the focus on memory, Kay doesn’t shy away from letting his characters speak directly on the topic. Early on, Danio says “we accumulate sins and guilt just by moving through our days, making choices, doing, not doing.” And soon enough he makes the choice that will bring him together with Adria and into the feuding circular dance between Teobaldo and Falco, first by not doing (keeping quiet about a potential assassination), then by doing (helping the assassin escape).
All of the characters here are, as Adria tells Danio, “living a life I choose.” Each are the product at every moment of the series of choices that led to that moment (Kay makes this concrete in the several references to characters meeting at crossroads). Time and again Danio remarks on how an action (or lack of action) was “part of the choice I made,” how sometimes we “have to choose a path, at speed, in the night,” and how, perhaps most importantly, “the choices we make. The person we become.”
Some, of course, have wider ranges of options — the powerful find fewer paths closed off to them. Women are more constrained. But as Kay has often shown in his other novels, saying a woman’s role in society is limited is not to say she is powerless, and so here we see multiple women (and others are referenced as well) who carve out their own road to agency and power even amongst the narrowed map of their lives. Kay doesn’t throw historical reality to the wind by presenting women as having utter freedom of action, but nor does he use “history” as an (ignorant) excuse to rob them of freedom.
Much of Adria’s sense of poignant urgency is her awareness that her time with the most freedom of choice is limited (a truth given, like memory earlier, a wonderfully effective metaphor via a thrilling horse race). Falco knows this too, as he explains to his wife: “I am trying — with your permission — to give her that different life for a time, before it will have to change. To respect what she’s shown us all that she wants” (note that subtle bit of agency belonging to his wife as well: “with your permission”). And that time does come to an end, but it does not mean her ability to choose does as well: “She’d known, riding out of that inn yard in the morning, that it was time … A door had opened, and had now closed behind her. Her own decision at least … She needed to see what other doors could now be found, and be made to let her through” (and again, note that subtle reference to agency and power: “be made to”).
Balanced against these repeated references to choosing a path are nearly as many nods to “fortune.” The acknowledgement that as much as we make the world an arena for our choices, the world makes of itself a playground with us its toys. Random encounters, bad weather, dumb luck, the errant spin of an arrow, all of these are examples of “the capricious wheel spinning.” But even with this recognition of chance, as Jelena notes, “Fortune’s wheel might spin, but you acted — or did not — in response to where it went.” Choice yet again.
Those choices to act or not act, Kay is quick to point out, affect not only oneself but ripple outward. Danio notes “the forks in our path are not only for ourselves,” as he recalls how one such decision of his affected an entire city and thus a region. Adria muses on how a woman can choose one path and thus “control not only her own life, but possibly influence the world beyond whatever walls she found herself behind.” A cleric, from a chance encounter, chooses to go to Sarantium (Kay’s version of Constantinople), to defend it against the besiegers and so finds himself at one of the most world-shaking events in this universe — Sarantium’s fall, marked by the doleful tolling of bells. But even though choices ripple outward into larger events, Kay never loses sight of the human, and so that epoch-shattering event is echoed by how news of the death of a single person “began tolling, very much like a bell” inside the head of someone for whom she was as important as the golden city.
These are not, after all, the great and powerful of history. They are the middling powerful (Teobaldo and Falco) at best and those whose lives intersect, sometimes even for moments only, with the powerful. These are the people Kay is interested in and the people he creates memorable characters from. There is so much more I could say about this novel. How it presents art as one possible answer to memory’s failure (though art, he makes clear, is not history, even art that pretends to be). The way storytelling itself weaves its way throughout (what is memory, after all, but story?), in direct references, in references to books and pens and weaving and mosaics, in a beautiful interlude about halfway through of a “maker, a shaper … deciding what to tell us. What to add, what not to share … ” The use of bird imagery. The inside references to two moons. The perfect pacing. Scenes of taut, almost unbearable tension. Heartbreaking deaths. The many moving mini-stories of characters we barely meet. The utter control of point-of-view as we zoom outward or forward in space and time and then back in. The respect Kay has for his characters. And yes, dammit, the sheer elegance and grace of his writing. A Brightness Long Ago is yet another gorgeous, moving novel from a master craftsman. I dread the next one.
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.
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.
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 daughter of a duke, are seen through the eyes of Guidanio (Danio) Cerra, the son of a tailor.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.