A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay (book review).

July 3, 2019 | By | 2 Replies More

The idea of a fantasy set in an alternative world is not a new one. Often it is a single change that make all the difference. A number of authors have experimented with the sub-genre: what if Lincoln wasn’t assassinated or Hitler was? What if Napoleon had succeeded in invading Britain or the Romans hadn’t? There are endless possibilities.

In those cases, the point at which history diverged was called a ‘jonbar hinge’. Other authors haven’t been satisfied with an event to change history but have introduced a fantastic element while keeping the time-line much the same. Naomi Novik introduced dragons which in the war with Napoleon were the equivalent of flying ships in her ‘Temeraire’ books. John M Ford explained the mystery of the Princes in the Tower in ‘A Dragon Waiting’ by putting vampires into the world view.

A third approach is to allow the reader to draw parallels with the history, and geography, of the world they are familiar with but with differences. Guy Gavriel Kay did this first in ‘Sailing To Sarantium’ where there are similarities between the city of Sarantium and the more familiar Bysantium and the regime resembles the late Roman period. This world, though, has two moons. Kay has revisited this world in ‘A Brightness Long Ago’ but in a much later period. Our fifteenth-century Italy was populated by warring city states and Kay mirrors that in this novel.

A problem with fantasy or historical fiction is that the records could only be kept by the literate. As a result, most of the stories revolve around the upper, educated classes or those that can afford scribes and the lives of the ordinary person, be they soldier of peasant, often remains unrecorded as they are regarded as insignificant. Kay juggles this dilemma in a satisfactory manner.

The narrator, Danio Cerro, thinks of himself as insignificant in his youth found his path intersecting with the major players in the squabbles between the city states. He is the son of a tailor but, because his intelligence is recognised by a local cleric, he is sent to a school in Avegna learning the skills to take his place at court. It is as a result of that education that he is employed at the court in Mylasia when the ruler is assassinated. The man probably deserved to die but power vacuums cause chaos.

Danio recognises the assassin but keeps quiet to the extent of helping her escape. This is his first encounter with Adria Ripoli. While he is aware that he will be nothing more than a chance encounter to her, he feels that he has a connection to her, that fate has put him in her path to help her when she is in need. Despite his subsequent life, it is his memories of her that mean the most to him.

Kay is a powerful writer and brings the period and characters to life. Although it is fantasy, it is the kind of novel that would transcend genres.

Pauline Morgan

July 2019

(pub: Berkley, New York, 2019. 416 page hardback. Price: $27.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-451-47298-4)

check out website: www.penguin.com/publishers/berkley/


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Category: Books, Scifi

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  1. Julian White says:

    Not to carp or anything but I’d say that Sarantium isn’t Kay’s first outing into the ‘familiar with differences’ field. In fact, apart from his first books (The Fionavar Tapestry and even there the trend is obvious) I think all his novels have used the idea – Tigana (1990) is another Renaissance Italy, A Song for Arbonne in mediaeval Provence and The Lions of Al-Rassan in mediaeval Spain… He’s not limited to Europe and the mediaeval period – two novels set in 8th and 12th century analogues of China and a number in more contemporary times, often with links to earlier novels.

    As you say he is a powerful writer. The parallels to ‘our’ history are fascinating at the very least.

    Kay worked on The Silmarillion with Christopher Tolkien…

  2. Peter Halasz says:

    A couple more things to add here. Except for the Silmarillion trilogy, his poetry, and non-fiction everything that Kay has written – and is presumably writing – is labelled Historical fantasy. It can, I suppose be labelled alternate history but alternate histories are considered to be science fiction, not fantasy. Jonbar Points mark and describe the precise point or precise event at which a science fictional, alternate, alternative or counterfactual fiction diverges from ours. There is no Jonbar Point in A Brightness Long Ago as there are none in any of Kay’s Historical Fantasies.

    Another characteristic almost unique to Kay is that he narrates not from the pov of the historically known,or historically important characters. Instead he chooses to narrate from the pov – and -of rather minor, certainly unknown, and clearly fictional
    characters. Counter-intuitively this imbues realism to the work, and a more realistic way to identify with the major narrator(s). After all, I can so much more easily identify with a student than with royalty.

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