A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Big Peat

Darth Buddha
Apr 9, 2016
Shortly before reading A Brightness Long Ago, I was wondering whether something like Line of Duty could work as a book. Whether if, once removed from the soundtrack of awkward pauses, slight tonal inflections and shifting facial expressions, a story built on the slowest and most thorough accumulation of details can work. It is a foolish question; Line of Duty is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for the modern age.

I mention this because while reading A Brightness Long Ago, I often considered the similarities between John le Carre and Guy Gavriel Kay, and that consideration started with their shared willingness to write as slowly as they like in the sure knowledge their fans are enraptured regardless.

Mind you, the main person Kay reminded me of is himself. It reminded me most of Tigana, both for the renaissance Italy inspired setting and the main overarching plot of ordinary people caught between the millstones of two enemies. But the nature of the rivalry reminded me more of The Lions of Al-Rassan; the sudden fierceness of love of The Last Light of the Sun.

The main character, Danio Cerra, does feel rather original though. The story chronicles his youth and early rise in the time of these two millstones, great mercenary captains seeking to secure their power in a land of greater powers. The story concentrates mainly on a few main key events and from there on, follows the unpredictable ripples of those events.

Some of it is told as a first person narrative by Danio; other parts are told in the third person from the perspective of the characters involved. Most parts are told in the past tense, a few in the present; most often the mercenary Folco and his niece Adria, but it is also used when recording the thoughts of the souls of the recently slain. This variety of approaches allows for a huge amount of nuance and shade to be brought to the said few main key events, which is something I believe Kay shares with Le Carre.

Of course, the origin of the recognition of things shared is the slowness. Kay quite deliberately puts the cart before the horse, relaying page after page of scene setting and back story before getting to the actual incident. The effect is to layer the plot with tension; both that of the slow build up and nervous questioning of when something terrible will happen, and that which comes with the empathy we build for people we spend so long with. I put this book down frequently, but often it was only for five or ten minutes to just let the ideas sit within me. Others will disagree, say that this book is too slow and too devoid of action. That will be a very fair criticism from those to whom it matters highly, but such is the skill that Kay works with, the majority of those who are willing to read slow books will not agree with it.

The biggest similarity though is the underlying theme of ordinary people changed and crushed by the powers that be, their own drive and desires, and sheer dumb luck. The angle of approach is somewhat different for in A Brightness Long Ago, the changes are positive more often than negative, and more about how one moment can stick with you forever and change who you are. Sometimes the changes are huge, forcing characters to notice the world how it really is and what power they have. Sometimes the changes are small, more a matter of the character's circumstances than their thoughts, although that too will change them. But there is something of Le Carre's exacting pressures and psychological maiming here too, although here the pressure comes from warfare and societal pressures. That pressure mostly affects the female characters, or men affected by the injustices inflicted on them; there is a quiet but clear feminist strand to this book.

It is very difficult to find anything negative about A Brightness Long Ago. The extremely unrushed quality of the story does at times go further than it should and leave me a little bored, but that never lasted long. In more or less every other facet - characterisation, storytelling, prose - it is excellent. At times it is sublime. Too many times for be to pick out a favourite. However, I do have one mild critique, and that is the final dramatic point is not the most satisfying and that after it, the story meanders around for a little more as it establishes the consequences. I suspect that, given how A Brightness Long Ago is a story of the power of the memories those formative moments of our youth, that is somewhat the point. The moments happen and Danio's memories become less clear. His life becomes less dramatic. And when that got me to consider how my brightest memories are increasingly long ago, I did feel very emotional. And is it right to criticise an ending that does that?

Some might be put off by the relatively minor use of supernatural elements compared to the rest of the genre. I hope not but it is possible. I sometimes think Kay's sparing usage is the reason he is not routinely mentioned as one of the genre's titans of today. Sometimes I think it is because of the literary nature of his writing compared to the action-adventure thrust of so much of fantasy. Maybe it is simply a perception brought on by the Atlantic. In any case, A Brightness Long Ago proves that Kay should be considered among the titans and that books built on the slowest and most thorough accumulation of details can work.

(An ARC for this book was provided by Hodder & Stoughton in an exchange for an honest review; I thank them for giving me this opportunity)