Review: A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

41458663In a chamber overlooking the nighttime waterways of a maritime city, a man looks back on his youth and the people who shaped his life. Danio Cerra’s intelligence won him entry to a renowned school even though he was only the son of a tailor. He took service at the court of a ruling count–and soon learned why that man was known  as the Beast.

Danio’s fate changed the moment he saw and recognized Adria Ripoli as she entered the count’s chambers one autumn night–intending to kill. Born to power, Adria had chosen, instead of a life of comfort, one of danger–and freedom. Which is how she encounters Danio in a perilous time and place.

Vivid figures share the unfolding story. Among them: a healer determined to defy her expected lot; a charming, frivolous son of immense wealth; a powerful religious leader more decadent than devout; and, affecting all these lives and many more,  two larger-than-life mercenary commanders, lifelong adversaries, whose rivalry puts a world in the balance.

A Brightness Long Ago offers both compelling drama and deeply moving reflections on the nature of memory, the choices we make in life, and the role played by the turning of Fortune’s wheel.

RATING: ☆★☆★

It felt unsettlingly disorienting to turn the last page of this book and be back in the noisy, bustling world. I struggled from the webbing of the story, and a deep melancholy that would not lift for many days begun to settle around me. Each word I tried to put down was one word further from what I meant to say. There was, in me, such a simmer of emotions; and I was tempted to read the book again, to go back and relive those moments, open them up and stretch them out full length to see what it was that had left this story so indelible upon my psyche.

Some people mark you as they go by.

A Brightness Long Ago is the tale of those who will not be arrayed in glory, whose images will not be painted on the walls of great houses, and whose names will not be enshrined in history. Those who will not be extoled for what they’ve done, nor will they be cursed either, because no one will remember their courage, or their tenacity, or their humility, and the last vestiges of their lives will simply be swept from the floor with the dust and the lint.

Guidanio Cerra, the only son of a tailor, is such a person, and A Brightness Long Ago is the tale of his youth and the few things still snarling in the rapidly fraying cobweb of his memory.

Danio’s life would have been replaced by a tyranny of indistinguishable days, if it weren’t for a happenstance, a venturesome choice and something perilously akin to fate, that fixed him to a world he felt only halfway inside of. Across worlds, his life collides with that of Adria Ripoli when, as a young man, he was serving as a court official’s assistant and recognized her, the daughter of a duke, when she came to assassinate The Beast—a count known for his perverse whim of summoning children to his room to hurt them. The night A Brightness Long Ago begins, instead of shouting alarm, Danio stiffens into silence and helps the fearless Ripoli heir flee.

Danio and Adria are not apart long enough to know the shape of each other’s absence. Some months later, Danio winds up in the company of men whose glory could scrape the stars hard as granite, one of which is Adria’s uncle, Folco d’Acorsi, a feared mercenary leader, and the other is his fierce enemy, Teobaldo Monticola. Danio is a child of Batiara—a dangerous place then, where you met monsters as often as friends—and he knew a boast of power when he saw it, but nothing could have divulged how these encounters would awaken a dimension in him he never knew existed, that he would be hurled unwary into a tale far more ambitious than he would have been allowed in life had he timorously traced his way back home and let Adria Ripoli become nothing more than a fragmented image flittering at the edge of his memory.

I knew, once, a woman diamond bright, and two men I will not forget. I played a part in a story in a fierce, wild, windblown time. I do have that. I always will. I am here and it is mine, for as near to always as we are allowed.

With his invigoratingly hard-to-classify new novel, A Brightness Long Ago, Kay has crafted something audacious: he, refreshingly, tells delicate, fervent, small human stories about names whose significance would be otherwise meaningless, lost in the annals of history, those whose lives would burn onto the shadows like an afterimage of the sun. And I loved it.

The novel breezes by at a leisurely pace, and the story takes its sweet time getting to the good stuff. The unhurried pacing could be frustrating for readers who require propulsive plots, but where the novel lags, the writing more than makes up for it. A Brightness Long Ago coasts past its minor weaknesses on the strength of Kay’s evocative storytelling. His prose is exquisite, yet never extravagant—the kind of potent, poetic writing that you hardly notice for how it flows across the page.

Kay is also skilled at conveying place and people, and while the reader is only privy to the small corners—distant and blurred—that the author introduces us to through his characters, the sheer amount of history, the sense of scope, and the shadow crumbs he summons for us to creep after—they all unveil a vicious grace, and a deft, sure hand. The author’s depiction of Batiara—his analogue of Renaissance-era Italy—is shadowy and lush, and the way he embroils his characters within its sweeping, brutal, imposing political realities is progressively gripping and suspenseful. It left me very keen to read more of his books in order to catch more glimpses of his whirling imagination.

The latter section of the book, especially, overflows with life. Kay slowly, smartly braids his multiple storylines right up to the rattling conclusion. A chain of mishaps and revelations ensues, which shook the foundation of the story, and rendered me speechless, shaking my head back and forth like a weight on a string, my heart beating in alternating hope and despair.

But the core of A Brightness Long Ago’s strength is its characters. Kay’s infallible ability to assume his characters’ voices, to slip into their skins, brings the melancholy undertow of the novel into a sharper focus. The author peoples this tale with a dizzying range of characters, and his biggest triumph lies in the manner in which he renders each antecedent event an unfamiliar terrain made anew by every new perspective he introduces. My only qualm, however, is that the frequent, delirious swapping between characters, often multiple times mid-chapter, was markedly hard to get used to. Danio and Adria are two of multiple narrators, and with the exception of Danio—who speaks in the first person—their stories are told in alternating third-person narratives without any signposting of who they are to help the reader discern their voices.

Luckily, the way A Brightness Long Ago revels in its subversion, and Kay’s choice to interrogate the tropes used to define what a “hero” is—as well as our underlying need to ask it—is enough to forgive. It’s also doubtless a testament to the quiet sureness of his voice and vision. This novel is, in many senses, a statement about how heroes don’t always fit our definitions, nor should they, and that’s what sung to me the most.

This is the story of the people who were still learning the world and their places in it when they found themselves entangled in these lies and games of power. It’s the story of courageous women who dared to break the mold of what’s expected of them, and the upright young men with fire in their bones. It’s about choices that are like the leap from a waterfall, events with a fierce kismet feel—a little too coincidental to be entirely coincidences—and “the random spinning of fortune’s wheel.” It’s about the quiet, tremulous achievements of the people whose names will not persevere against the relentless onslaught of time, but who nonetheless left a mark upon the face of the world. The author allows his storytelling to invest these tales with greater and greater vitality, which culminates in a deeply thoughtful and contemplative work of fiction.

 So many stories that can be told, in and around and braided through the one we are being given. Don’t we all know that stories can be sparks leaping from the bonfire of an offered tale to become their own fire, if they land on the right ground, if kindling is there and a light breeze but not a hard wind?

A Brightness Long Ago is an incredibly rewarding read, and I suspect readers will not only be riveted by the book’s genre-bending structure, but its boldness in telling the necessary stories of those who, even when they are brave, their experiences important, are often relegated to the sidelines, the shadowlands.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s