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  • Title: A Brightness Long Ago
  • Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Publisher: Viking
  • Pages: 448

About halfway through Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest novel, the occasional narrator suggests to the reader “Someone is deciding what to tell us. What to add, what not to share at all, or when (and how) to reveal a thing.” Kay has made a career of digging through the well-known histories of great civilizations, and refashioning their lesser-shared details into rich historical fiction. In A Brightness Long Ago, Kay continues this pursuit in a way that’s less aesthetically pleasing than usual, but far more rooted in telling a good story.

Returning to the land of Batiara previously seen in Kay’s last work, Children of Earth and Sky, the novel is set decades before that sprawling tale, but told from a much tighter perspective. It begins with the reminiscent musings of an old man, Guidano Cerra, whose encounter as a young man with his patron’s assassin, a girl named Adria Ripoli, triggers a chain of events that carries him and several others into the protracted struggle between two powerful lords.

Through this encounter, where Guidano chooses against his better judgment to aid Adria’s escape after she assassinates his patron, Kay invites the reader into fictionalized tales of warring mercenary lords, or condottieri in 15th century Italy, as well as the near-fantastical figures who played an outsize role in the prelude to the Italian Wars. Adria, of the noble Ripoli family, is evocative of the very real Caterina Sforza, a fierce and mercurial figure in Italian history. Adria’s uncle Folco Cinco d’Acorsi serves as a near analogue for Federico da Montefeltro of Urbino, one of Italy’s most well-known condottiere (who also happened to be related to the powerful Sforza family through marriage) And Teobaldo Monticola di Remigio, a long-time enemy of Folco, stands in for da Montefeltro’s nemesis Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, the Wolf of Rimini.

The clashes and intrigue between Folco and Monticola are precipitated by Adria’s assassination of Count Uberto of Mylasia, dragging Cerra’s life into the turmoil of city states on the cusp of open war. Although the fantastical elements are far more muted than in Kay’s previous novels, this book does wrestle with the concept of divine purpose. The characters’ spontaneous and seemingly inconsequential decisions often ripple outward far beyond expectations (occasionally into disaster), leading to the unsubtle question of what role divine providence could play in the shaping of history. As Folco says, “The god amuses himself with our lives.”

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Author Guy Gavriel Kay's writing moves the focus toward the most vulnerable actors, for whom hope isn’t so much a feeling as an essential resource.Ted Davis

Kay’s writing is often described as beautiful, skilled as he is with wringing emotion from sparse description, and with dialogue that always feels genuine. But there’s also a beauty in theme of hopefulness that connects his novels. Where other authors might be tempted to dwell on the most powerful characters (and thus the gore, bloodshed and depravity of Italy as it emerged from the Middle Ages), Kay again moves the focus toward the most vulnerable actors, for whom hope isn’t so much a feeling as an essential resource. Their longings – especially for one another – in the most violent of times is palpable.

Aside from Cerra and Ripoli, there are also those such as pagan healer Jelena (much younger in this book than when she was first introduced Children of Earth and Sky), who understands the precariousness of her life before she very nearly loses it at the whims of Monticola. There are also those like decadent noble Antenami Sardi, who come to understand that, even those born into a powerful family can be swept away by the currents of history. “You see how this begins another tale?” asks the narrator. “How one gives rise to another, and then others?”

Kay’s previous works such as Under Heaven and River of Stars (which loosely threaded together the decline of the Tang Dynasty and the fall of the Northern Song), have illustrated this theme on a much larger scale. But the size of his epics have occasionally come at the cost of fully fleshing out his characters. A Brightness Long Ago, on the other hand, is a welcome return to the narrative form that Kay showed in The Lions of al-Rassan. By keeping a narrow focus on the major actors and the story’s breadth the characters are more well-developed, and their motivations clear.

Rather than cast Folco and Monticola as hero and villain, Kay offers the possibility that the two men are themselves carried along by inexorable forces (unlike depictions of their real-life counterparts, which often sanctify da Montefeltro and demonize Malatesta). Additionally, Kay spends more time examining the lives of women than he did in Children of Earth and Sky, which felt at times too narrowly focused on its exceptional female lead, at the expense of other women often cast as accessories and playthings for powerful men. And Cerra, who mostly sees himself as hardly more than a bit player in the larger drama, is a refreshing contrast to genre heroes who set out to reshape the world around them.

In the postscript to his stories, Kay leaves readers with a list of suggested readings to learn more about the events and periods referenced. By providing an on-ramp for the curious types who would like to dive deeper he tacitly admits the limits of storytelling, and encourages the reader to bypass narrators who decide what to add, and what not to share. Caterina Sforza is herself said to have confessed to a monk “If I could write everything that happened, I would shock the world.” Living, as we are, in a world that seems beyond the capacity for shock, A Brightness Long Ago is a beautifully told counterpoint.

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