Guy Gavriel Kay has been a favourite of mine for years, ever since The Fionavar Tapestry broke my heart as a young teen. I’ve only recently branched out into his less magical, more historical fantasy, though, and A Brightness Long Ago is a perfect example of how he spins real-world history into secondary worlds and creates something truly beautiful with it.
Book: A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay
Read before: No
Ownership: E-ARC provided free of charge via NetGalley, but I also purchased the paperback for myself. All opinions my own.
Content warning: Violence; sexual abuse and sadism (off-page but discussed in some detail); major character death.
You can absolutely read this as a standalone, despite its links to some of his other books – there’s nothing you will miss that affects the story at all. In fact, the story of this book is almost secondary to its exploration of the characters. It’s an interesting choice to have the main character and primary narrator, Danio, be someone who, really, doesn’t have an awful lot of impact on the world, just happens to be present at some of the major moments. Many authors have played with this conceit, but this is one of the most effective books I’ve ever seen use it – it isn’t a heavy-handed moral about the impact of world events on the ‘little guy’, but something different, something I’m struggling to explain, but that feels way more real and honest. I think it also helps that although this is presented as a kind of memoir, with Danio looking back on his youth, there are also multiple third-person perspectives that let you flit into and out of different views of the same events. The personalities are so strong that even the characters who get only one or two scenes are incredibly knowable. It almost feels like reading a really good narrative history book, but one where you genuinely care about the people involved.
It reminds me most of Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan in its texture, but also of The Golden Key by Jennifer Roberson, Melanie Rawn, and Kate Elliott – lush, lyrical, rich in description, with an intensely personal focus despite the politicking. I think a lot of people will be put off by the slowness and density of the prose, but for me, it feels like sinking into a hot bath, or coming home after a long day. There’s a performative quality to the writing – Danio obviously has knowledge of what will happen, as he is looking back, but even the third person narratives have a sense of inevitability about them, which comes across almost didactic in places. This really worked for me, but I can definitely see that it may be off-putting to people expecting something more focused on the immediate.
I’m genuinely struggling to explain this book, but maybe it’s better to go into it knowing little and allowing yourself to be swept away. It’s beautiful, and smart, and utterly engrossing. Even though it contains only the barest shreds of magic, the whole thing is magical to read. Five out of five cats.