Guy Gavriel Kay‘s newest release from Penguin/Random House, A Brightness Long Ago, is one of those wonderful books which gradually worms its way under your skin. In the manner of a subtle seduction, it works its magic on you until, without noticing, you’ve become totally immersed in the world the author has created.
And what a world. For the past couple of decades Kay has been creating in our imaginations a very intricate and detailed world as the backdrop for the majority of his novels. In this fantastic version of European history we’ve travelled in time from Byzantine Constantinople to the fall of Islamic ruled Spain.
A Brightness Long Ago has Kay bringing us into his version of the Italian peninsula with warring city states and their mercenary armies competing for power, wealth and control. Our guide through the events depicted in the book are the memories of Guidanio Cerra – who is also called Danio. Native to the canal filled Seressa, through accident and, occasionally design, Danio becomes involved in cut and thrust of the political maneuvering of the era.
In those days the cut and thrust of politics was much more literal as issues were usually resolved by sending one of the many mercenary armies for hire in the peninsula to make your point for you. Only Seressa, whose wealth and power stemmed from their access, and control of, the sea and, by extension, trade, had no need to utilize one of these armies.
With Danio leading us through the intricacies of the social and political webs Kay has created and manipulated on these pages we are taken on a fascinating journey into a vivid and finely crafted world. Individual chapters are like scenes captured by a painter. While the focus is on certain primary figures, he doesn’t ignore the background, the details which bring the world alive and give it the colour of verisimilitude.
Anyone familiar with Italy and its history will have no trouble recognizing some of the more identifiable locations mentioned in the book.
One of the more vivid depictions is Kay’s bringing to life the anarchy associated with Siena’s infamous Palio horserace. His descriptions of the town gradually working itself into a state of fever pitch leading up to the race, including, but not limited, to bringing horse and rider into a church to be blessed, are wonderful.
However, as in all Kay’s books, it’s his characters who keep us in the story. A couple are familiar from his last work, Children of Earth and Sky, which describes events taking place a couple decades after those depicted in A Brightness Long Ago. New or old each of them are not only fascinating characters but their habits and behaviour also contribute to our picture of the society they live in.
It’s not often you read a book which effectively evokes a time and place and tells a great story. Not only does A Brightness Long Ago accomplish all three, Kay does it with an elegance that leaves you savouring every page, indeed almost every word. The only drawback being you’ll find that after closing the book you want more.
Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Brightness Long Ago is a book that will entrance and enthral. Read, enjoy and revel in its depiction of a fascinating world.
(Originally posted at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.