The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay
The Last Light of the Sun is another of Guy Gavriel Kay’s lovely historical fantasies. This one blends Norse, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon histories with a bit of faerie mythos. We follow a few main characters from each of these societies as they interact with each other to shape their land and destinies. As usual in a Guy Gavriel Kay novel, we see the struggles from each perspective, so there’s no single “hero” or “villain.” We understand what motivates each of the characters and their culture and we can admire their strengths and recognize their weaknesses. In the end, we want everyone to win but, of course, that’s not what happens.
I thought the cast of The Last Light of the Sun was not as accessible or compelling as that of Tigana and A Song for Arbonne (though I really loved a couple of the side characters, especially Judit and her brother Athelbert) but, as always, each is a work of art. All of GGK’s characters (even the minor ones) are passionate people full of hopes, fears, dreams, and plenty of spirit. This complete characterization — the reader’s ability to be fully in the head of the point-of-view character — is one of the things that sets this author apart from others. It’s sometimes melodramatic and occasionally makes the plot move slowly, because there may be a lot of history and motivation to relate, but it’s usually interwoven well enough that it serves to give us necessary information while moving the plot at the same time. Here’s an example from the beginning of the book from the point of view of a character who we’ll never meet again:
Here in the remote, pagan north, at this wind-scoured island market of Rabady, he was anxious to begin trading his leather and cloth and spices and bladed weapons for furs and amber and salt and heavy barrels of dried cod (to sell in Ferrieres on the way home) — and to take immediate leave of these barbarian Erlings, who stank of fish and beer and bear grease, who could kill a man in a bargaining over prices, and who burned their leaders — savages that they were — on ships among their belongings when they died.
Just as the people that GGK writes about are full of passion, so is his writing. Kay is so serious about his style — obviously working hard to get it just right — that it’s a joy to read, even though occasionally it goes over the top:
She said nothing, though he thought she was about to. Instead, she stepped nearer, rose upon her toes, and kissed him on the lips, tasting of moonlight, though it was dark where they stood, except for her. The blue moon outside, above, shining over his own lands, hers, over the seas. He brought his hands up, touched her hair. He could see the small, shining impossibility of her. A faerie in his arms.
Tasting of moonlight? I’m going to let that one pass…
There’s also quite a bit of philosophizing in The Last Light of the Sun, mainly about how an individual’s actions can have unexpected and life-changing effects on others. Some of this was relayed in a few vignettes in which we’re quickly told the rest of the life history of very minor characters. These episodes were meant to be contemplative, but I found them intrusive since they felt rushed (decades of life summed up in a few paragraphs), broke up the plot, involved characters whom I didn’t care about, and contained repetitive insights about the uncertainty of life or the tendency for seemingly small actions to have long-lasting consequences. Perhaps more pensive persons will appreciate these parts. Fortunately, they were short, so they didn’t preclude my enjoyment of the novel.
I listened to The Last Light of the Sun on audio (Penguin Audiobooks). Holter Graham did an excellent reading. I hope to hear more from him in the future.
Three is a central number in Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Last Light of the Sun, and so in that same spirit, I’ll open with three reasons to read the novel, which somehow I managed to miss when it first came out and (unforgivably) hadn’t gotten around to reading until recently.
- It’s by Guy Gavriel Kay (Ok, cheap yes, but no less true)
- It’s a meticulously designed and tightly constructed story
- It will catch you, again and again, by surprise
- It will move you near, or all the way, to tears (see, you were surprised by a fourth, weren’t you?)
Set in the same historical fantasy (or fantastical history) world as many of his other novels, The Last Light of the Sun stands out a bit by moving the action to the north, detailing a 9th Century clash between three groups: the Erlings (think Vikings), the Anglcyn (the name is a hint), and the Cyngael (Welsh/Celts). A generation earlier, the Vikings had terrorized the other two with regular raiding and pillaging. But the young Anglcyn king Aeldred, at some personal cost to his own health, managed to throw the raiders back and has spent a lifetime since trying to ensure his people would be strong enough to repel (or better yet dissuade) other such attacks. At roughly the same time, the Welsh leader Brynn ap Hywyll slew the great Viking raider Siggur Volganson and took as spoil his famed sword.
A fitful peace has mostly reigned since then, but the thirst for glory and vengeance always seemingly finds root amongst the young, and so onto the stage steps a new generation of actors: Ivar Ragnarson, a descendant of Siggur who seeks to avenge his ancestor’s death and regain his sword; Aeldred’s several children (Athelbert, Kendra, Judit, Gareth) who must find a way to grow into their roles and help strengthen their father’s realm; Rhiannon, Brynn’s daughter; two young Welsh lords (brothers Dai and Alun), and Bern Thorkellson, whose father Thorkell had been Siggur’s companion and who had been exiled from home leaving Bern without an apparent future. Thorkell and the Cyngael cleric Ceinion, while both being of Aeldred and Brynn’s generation, act as bridges of a sort between the two generations as the story plays out through violence and death, love and regret, murder and self-sacrifice.
Characters are sharply drawn and richly developed so that it’s impossible not to be moved by their wrenching emotions. And as he often does, Kay doesn’t simply lavish attention on his “main” characters alone. Some of the most moving scenes, and certainly some of my favorite ones, involve Kay shifting his focus to so-called “minor” characters, and spinning out their days in ultra-compact yet highly effective fashion, highlighting that they too have lives and if we do not spend so many pages on them it is merely a matter of narrative choice. Everyone, in other words, has a story. Or as the novel has it:
At the margin of any tale there are lives that come into it only for a moment … Who run quickly through a story and then out, along their paths. For these figures, living their own sagas, the tale they intersect is the peripheral thing. A moment in the drama of their own living and dying.
If there is an author who has more respect for their characters, all of their characters, I can’t think of their name.
And while many authors are good at creating characters, Kay excels as well in creating relationships. Father-son relationships are particularly important in The Last Light of the Sun, but so too are the relationships (many, thanks to the aforementioned meticulous design, echoing one another) between fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, brothers, comrades-in-arms, and boon companions. And it is often these relationships that provide the most poignant moments.
The world-building is equally rich, displaying, though not ostentatiously or gratuitously, Kay’s penchant for thorough research. The three cultures are clearly delineated by language, by world view, by thought, as opposed to blending together in a mush of Ye Olde warriors. As is often the case in Kay’s books, the cultures are at a cusp, each of them facing change in an ever-evolving world (the title has both a literal and metaphorical meaning). The fantastical backdrop evinces the same sort of shift, as the world of the Fae slowly recedes from the mortal world, though it still retains a fearsomely glorious power even in its waning. The manner in which Kay presents the fantastic, as a wholly immersive (from the characters’ point of view) and pervasive world view, with nary a wink or nod, is yet further evidence of the respect he accords his characters. As is the way he doesn’t imbue them with modern sensibilities or have them suddenly “made” more modern via their experiences. Raiders gonna raid, after all, no matter the epiphanies.
In terms of theme, Kay fans will recognize some common topics of exploration, including the working of memory (“We like to believe we can know the moments we’ll remember of our own days and nights, but that isn’t really so”), the ripple effects of personal choice even in a world of chance and fortune, the ephemerality of existence and achievement (“How do we build anything to last, when it might come down at any time?”), the courageous act that goes unseen and may have no impact (at least not the intended one) but is no less deserving of value, and the way the past ever haunts the present, or has one character puts it, “the past always comes back.”
And sometimes we go back to the past, because that’s where the books are we somehow missed the first time around. If you made the same mistake with The Last Light of the Sun, I suggest you rectify that error as soon as possible.