kay brightnessA Brightness Long Ago
Guy Gavriel Kay
Penguin Random-House Canada

Spring 2019

Guy Gavriel Kay’s website is called “Bright Weavings,” and this new novel is brightly woven. The narrative is, indeed, more weblike than linear, tracing the tight but seemingly random relationships between characters in one brief moment in time. For me, the title represents the brief light of a life flaring out in the dark reaches of history; Kay brings them to life and their lives shine and interact like a kaleidoscope.

The novel opens with an incredibly tense and suspenseful assassination, and two characters meet whose lives will intersect briefly. Their lives intersect with others, and with others, and so the web is woven. It is a novel built of moments – like history – each one shining out, radiantly important to the individual at its center, perhaps meaningless beyond that context, or having repercussions that go unsuspected at the time.

In our universe, Guidanio Cerra, the narrator whose memory captures most of the threads of this web and spans a time-line that exceeds the direct actions of the novel, would have read Boethius in the school in Avegna where he was fortunate enough to study and which led his path to cross with larger figures of his time. He thinks about Fortune’s Wheel, and if we have read Boethius, we think of his central lesson which is to withstand the blows of fate and set an even keel through life. Guidanio Cerra does that, and perhaps this is why he is the one to encounter and witness the brief, more fortune-driven lives of others, and to reflect on them and his own place in them.

We meet many characters: Guidanio Cerra, the son of a bookseller from Seressa (a Venice analogue), Adria Ripoli, the young woman at the center of the two most striking set-pieces in the novel (the assassination and the most exhilarating horse-race), the powerful rival mercenaries, Folco Cino and Teobaldo Monticola, and the intriguing Jelena, the healer. And others. We get brief insights into the lives of “bit” characters as well, each one vividly drawn even if just for a moment.

Kay is known as a fantasy writer, but this is something of a misnomer; Kay himself resists genre identification. A Brightness Long Ago is perhaps the least “fantasy-like” of his novels that I’ve read, and I’ve read most of them (all but one, I think). This is set in the same world as Children of Earth and Sky, and I believe is a prequel. Someone needs to write a guide to Kay’s characters and settings, because there are connections and threads running between his works that add to the complex sense of connectedness that informs them. Perhaps the best description of Kay’s work would be “meta-history” – his novels are set in a world that does not exist, yet explore and illuminate themes and historical trends that are very much alive in our own. Kay’s work always has an underlying melancholy, a sense of tragic inevitability, perhaps just in the sense that all our lives and enterprises are brief and ultimately pointless, but we also get the sense that each of us has our own brightness to share, and what a brilliant light that can be.

I am grateful to have been provided an ARC of this novel by NetGalley and the publishers.