A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

Abrightness.jpgThis is the first book I’ve read by Guy Gavriel Kay but it certainly won’t be my last.  I absolutely loved this.  Well, in fairness, when I started out I didn’t think it would be my cup of tea, there are a lot of characters, events and places and much to take on board and I thought I was going to sag under the weight of it all – how very wrong I was.  Pretty soon the characters and the intrigue had completely drawn me in and my initial thoughts that this would be a bit ‘heavy’ were brushed away by the excellent storytelling.

A Brightness Long Ago is an unusual story.  Influenced by Renaissance Italy and even including a couple of real characters from that period who were long time enemies.  Fundamentally this is one man’s recollections of a particularly tumultuous period of his life when he took part in and influenced events and at the same time fell in love.

How to pinpoint what I really liked about this.  It’s difficult to narrow down.  The writing is thoughtful and thought provoking.  There are a number of characters that I just loved but more than that it seems to really capture the essence of a period in history that was passionate, tumultuous, chaotic and often violent.  This was a time when life was cheap, when mercenaries were called to arms on an almost regular basis, and when feuds seemed to take on a life of their own.

The story is primarily told by Danio Cerra, a young man of promise who’s intelligence secured him a place at a prestigious school and led to a position working for a nobleman referred to as the ‘Beast’.  While Danio’s first post was fairly short lived it brought him love and fear and shaped his future.

I won’t elaborate further on the plot.  This isn’t a story of good vs evil, we don’t have a hero trying to save the world in fact this is more a series of events, not always connected but brought together by the people in focus and the way in which their lives cross and influence one another.  The thing is, that probably sounds a little bit underwhelming and yet it really isn’t.  This is very much a character driven novel and it works incredibly well.

Let’s look at some of the characters.  Danio.  A young man of intelligence who is given a good start in life, in spite of his fairly humble background, when he gains a place at a prestigious school.  I liked Danio.  It would be difficult not to like him.  He’s young and inexperienced in ways, he certainly isn’t a warrior and is refreshingly honest about his own limitations in that respect, but he can think fast and improvise.  The other characters are Adria, a young woman of noble birth who was definitely born in the wrong period – she’s wonderful, outspoken, fearless – she’s a great addition to be honest and probably my favourite character.  Adria likes to ride and to fight, she enjoys danger in fact and is a great character to read about and her uncle Folco gives her the opportunity to serve him as spy and assassin giving her a level of freedom that she never expected.  Folco is the lifelong enemy of Teobaldo.  Both former military leaders, now Lords, their lives constantly teeter on the brink of violence and bloodshed as if there wasn’t already enough of this with the constant fear of invasion.  The two of them are devoured by this rift – but their actions almost feel like a well choreographed dance at times, they come together and beat their chests, there’s something of a standoff, they part ways and then repeat a year later although it appears that the stakes are being raised. There are other characters that play key roles, notably a young woman who is a healer with a love of travel who also finds her life intersecting in memorable ways with the above and another young noble who is something of a dandy until a close brush with death teaches him to reevaluate.

The writing is excellent.  I really can’t fault it.  The characters were well rounded and the world was established step by step as the story unfolded.  In fact, considering everything that’s going on here and the breadth of intrigue the author makes it feel deceptively easy to understand and is even more impressive when you consider that the timeline jumps back and forth. In fact, I must make mention of a horse race that takes place.  An unusual race where a number of riders are randomly selected to represent different districts within the city.  The race is an old tradition and rife with underhand tactics, scheming and danger. The rivalry is intense and the description of the race itself is absolutely gripping.  I was on the edge of my seat.  What trickery is this – how on earth did this horse race turn into something that had me glued to the page.

Anyway, I’ll leave it there.  I heartily recommend A Brightness Long Ago.  It’s an excellent read packed to the gills with interesting characters influenced by a period in history that was volatile and often full of drama.  This is fairly low in terms of fantasy, there is mention of ghosts/spirits etc but no magic as such.

I enjoyed this so much that I raced to the end – and then felt bereft that it was all over.  I had the urge to immediately go back to the beginning to see what I’d missed in my haste and also the desire to go and delve into the period of history that inspired this piece of work.  Just to be sure and in case I’ve been too subtle in this review I thoroughly enjoyed this and look forward to reading more by Guy Gavriel Kay in fact I can now look forward to looking back at some of his previous books.

I received a copy through Netgalley, courtesy of the publisher, for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.