Review: A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

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I admittedly haven’t gotten much GGK into my system, as I only started reading his work later on in my life (I know!), but I’ve been planning to shove as much of it into my brain as possible, so when this popped up on NetGalley, I jumped on it.

So, thanks to the author as well as Berkley via NetGalley for the review copy.

In 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.

The sailors say the rain misses the cloud even as it falls through light or dark into the sea. I miss her like that as I fall through my life, through time, the chaos of our time. I dream of her some nights, still, but there is nothing to give weight or value to that, it is only me, and what I want to be true. It is only longing.

As this book is by GGK, it goes without saying that it is beautiful. But I have to say it anyway: goddamn this is a beautiful book. This review isn’t going to be as eloquent as others you’ll see for it. I am finding it rather difficult to even get words together for my thoughts on it that aren’t just ‘breathtakingly beautiful’ over and over. So it goes. The Lions of Al-Rassan is the only other Kay book that I’ve read up until now, and I wasn’t really expecting to latch on to the very next I read like I did Lions… but here we are. They’re about even.

This story takes place in what is… more or less Italy in the 15th or so century, and it follows Guidanio Cerra, who is the son of a tailor who still nonetheless finds himself being allowed to study at a rather prestigious school. After that, he takes a job in the court of a duke, known as The Beast, and one night recognizes Adria Ripoli, the daughter of a powerful Duke as she enters The Beast’s rooms with every intention of assassinating him. She succeeds, but gets injured along the way. Danio helps her escape the castle. This won’t be the last time they meet, but it is the first. The story unfolds around Danio, and encompasses many people, but mainly two mercenary commanders who have had a long standing rivalry with each other, Folco Cino D’Acorsi and Teobaldo Monticola di Remigio.

As I said, this is a beautifully written story, and once I sat down with it, I couldn’t stop reading it until well into the wee hours of the morning. Kay’s prose is absolutely gorgeous, for a start, and the way it forms a story slowly but so intricately really puts the comparisons of Kay’s work to tapestries into perspective. It really is rather like having a story woven into a tapestry around you. The characters were so well built that I was emoting hard for them right from the start. Even characters that didn’t show up quite as often, such as the healer Jelena, or the rich and rather frivolous nobleman Antenami Sardi were so well written even in their comparatively brief appearances that they seemed to just emerge fully-formed into the story whenever needed.

We want to sink into the tale, leave our own lives behind, find lives to encounter, even to enter for a time. We can resist being reminded of the artificer, the craft. We want to be immersed, lost, not remember what it is we are doing, having done to us, as we turn pages, look at a painting, hear a song, watch a dance. Still, that is what is being done to us. It is. Even so… we do turn the page, and can be lost again.

So all told, this book was amazing. It was beautiful and rich. It was evocative and thought-provoking. It was tear-jerking and smile-inducing. In short, it was a masterpiece. GGK is a Canadian national treasure. Since he has already been given the Order of Canada, which is our highest civilian honor, we should knight him, or give him a Tim Horton’s gift card or something. Everyone loves gift cards, right? 🇨🇦

All of the stars in the universe out of 5. (Okay, okay, 5/5 stars.) 🙂

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