Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Guy Gavriel Kay is without question one of the more prominent and outstanding speculative fiction authors writing today, and I think we can add A Brightness Long Ago to his list of successes. The story follows an old and powerful man, part of the ruling council in a fantasy version of Venice, as he remembers his rather turbulent youth, how he came to be where he is, as well as all the different men and women who shaped his fate.
Table of contents
Guy Gavriel Kay Delivers a Remembrance
When we look at our past, we tend to see our lives through the scope of a narrative with which we trace the path of our existence through time and space to make sense of it, but for the vast majority of us, it only comes with the power of hindsight. In A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay, we are treated to the rather complex memories of an old and powerful man trying to establish the narrative of his life.
Taking us to the fictional city of Seressa, which can be essentially thought of as a fantasy version of Venice, we are introduced to Guidanio Cerra. He started out his unassuming path in life as the son of a tailor, but today, in his old age, he is a rather powerful member of the city’s ruling council. Looking over the waterways of the city in the dead of night, he begins the recollection of his youth.
Guidanio begins the remembrance of his life rather early on, the point where he, the son of a humble tailor, made his way into a prestigious school merely on account of his intelligence. From there on out, he meets many different men and women who, in their own ways, play a role in shaping his life and destiny.
Primarily, Guidanio bears witness to a massive and lethal feud between two Condottiere (mercenary leaders), Folco d’Acrosi and Teobaldo Monticola di Remigio. No other people whose paths he crossed had as much of an impact on him as the two men who nearly upset the balance of the world.
Alongside with the people who made him who he is, Guidanio also takes the time to relate the many lessons he learned and conclusions he has come to on a whole host of topics no human can escape. Those include fate, free will, the power of will, love, death, memory, the role of religion, and these are just for starters.
The Interconnectedness of People in A Brightness Long Ago
Fantasy novels have, generally-speaking, gotten us used to presentations where the plot and its development take the centre stage, and why shouldn’t it be so? Fantasy allows for the development of literally any ideas, a dream come true for many authors. With A Brightness Long Ago, however, Guy Gavriel Kay takes a somewhat different approach to the presentation.
The plot of the book itself, which is the narrative following Guidanio Cerra’s life, is largely painted with big and overarching strokes, with the author choosing to place the brunt of his focus on something a little different: the many different characters populating the plot.
Perhaps in the darkest times all we can do is refuse to be part of the darkness.― Guy Gavriel Kay, A Brightness Long Ago
In other words, watching what will happen to Guidanio next isn’t the appeal of this book, at least not for me. As a matter of fact, we know where he ends up in life, and so if there was an element of tension to be found in regards to this, it was lost at the very start. The real appeal is meeting all the different characters and seeing the complex interplay between them.
For starters, each and every person, from the smallest inconsequential characters to the larger ones who seem to bend fate at their will, feels unique and has a certain role to play in the story. Nobody feels like a throwaway character, all of them successfully humanized and made realistic by the author’s excellent prose and understanding of the human psyche.
What’s more, the author always keeps cause-and-effect in mind, and often even small actions and decisions turn out to have tremendous consequences down the line. The web of interconnectedness between the figures populating this novel is vast, complex, and a true thing of beauty which, personally-speaking, would be enough on its own to make A Brightness Long Ago worth reading.
Musings About Real Life in a Fantastical World
Though the story might be technically set in a fantasy world, it is very much based on the epoch of the Italian Renaissance and draws many more parallels with the real rather than the fictional. It is filled with stand-ins for all sorts of figures from the era, from the Medici and the Popes to timelessly-famous people such as Michelangelo.
Gardens were an island of order imposed upon the chaos of the world.― Guy Gavriel Kay, A Brightness Long Ago
In other words, we could say the story takes place in Renaissance Venice with all the historical figures having their names changed. Why am I bothering to say all this? Because I think in order to make the sorts of real-life musings and meditations on real life which the author expresses, one must base their story in a context which, at the very least, mirrors the real world.
Indeed, there are plenty of interesting reflections thrown in by the author essentially from start to finish, and he accomplishes something I don’t believe many authors can do, which is to keep his thoughts interesting the whole way through. Often times authors want to say more than they actually know, giving us filler ruminations which don’t really lead anywhere.
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Guy Gavriel Kay doesn’t fall victim to this one bit, and I often found myself taking a pause from the book in order to process and think about the ideas presented to me. He has many original and profound thoughts, with many of them revolving around the topic of fate versus choice, one of the principal mysteries of the human condition. The amount of novels capable of sending us into truly profound and potentially perspective-altering reflections is far and few in-between, but in my opinion this one makes the cut to be categorized as such.
The Final Verdict
A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay is a beautiful, unique, and intelligent novel which perfectly combines storytelling and philosophical contemplation of various themes forever-pertinent to human existence. The complex characters and the profound interplay between them adds an exceptional layer of enjoyment few authors could realize.
If you’re looking for a profound piece of historical fiction set in Renaissance Italy which delivers a captivating story, intriguing characters and profound insight on complex themes, then I would strongly recommend this novel for you.
Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay is a Canadian author specializing primarily in fantasy fiction, though he himself prefers to avoid genre categorization. He has a number of literary awards to his name, including the 1991 Aurora Award for Best Novel for Tigana and the 2008 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel for Ysabel. In 2014 he was appointed to the Order of Canada for his contributions to speculative fiction as an internationally-celebrated author.