What can you say about a new Guy Gavriel Kay novel? You read it, it is brilliant, you decide once again that Kay is a genius. Plus ça change. If you are a Kay fan then you will love A Brightness Long Ago. If you have never read him before you should probably start with Tigana or The Lions of Al Rassan. If you don’t like what Kay does, the new book will not change your mind.
On then to the question that Kay fans will have about any new work: what real world history has inspired it? Well, the book is a prequel of sorts to Children of Earth and Sky. It is set in the Kay-world analogue of Renaissance Italy. We meet younger versions of some of the characters of the previous novel; in particular the healer, Jelena, whom Danica meets when she encounters the rebel leader, Iskander. It turns out that Jelena’s early life is far more exciting than simply being associated with a legendary warrior.
Other characters from Children are mentioned briefly in passing. We meet Duke Ricci, hear of Emperor Rudolfo, and discover that the odious Erigio Valeri learned macho posturing from his father. However, the book is not about any of these people, not even Jelena. It is, inevitably, about condottieri.
Switching back to our world, we should be aware of the rising power of the Medici of Florence. We should know of Francesco Sforza, the man who bought himself the Dukedom of Milan. But we should also know of Federico da Montefeltro, the one-eyed lord of Urbino, and Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, known as the Wolf of Rimini, two brilliant military commanders who were bitter enemies. None of these people are in Kay’s book, but people very like them are.
The beauty of Kay’s technique of running almost parallel to real world history is that he is free to add to and adapt the original timeline. Francesco Sforza did not have a beautiful and headstrong redhaired daughter. However, his granddaughter, Caterina, was seriously badass and doubtless fed into Kay’s creation of Adria Ripoli.
The central character of the story, however, is Guidanio Cerra, a smart and bookish young man from Seressa whose life intersects with that of the rich and famous in important ways. He acts as our guide and interpreter of local politics and society. He’s a thoroughly decent young man when we first meet him, and he manages to stay so through the novel, despite the various escapades he is involved in. That caused me to reflect on the nature of Kay’s work.
There are those, I am sure, who dismiss Kay’s work as sentimental. Certainly it can be at times, but it is not naively so. People die in Kay’s novels. They die because everyone has to eventually; and they die because they live in dangerous, violent times. Young Cerra kills two men early on in the novel. But Kay’s work is never going to be classed as Grimdark because it is also relentlessly hopeful. The expectation of a Grimdark novel is that everyone is awful, and that things will turn out bad in the end. In a Kay novel, the world is full of awful people, and things do often turn out bad. However, there are also good people in the world, and every so often they achieve small victories. A Kay novel never gives in to despair, which is one of the reasons why I love them so much.
After all, the real world is not irredeemably hopeless either. Sometimes, despite all of the oppression and nonsense social codes, people get to do amazing things, or be happy, or both.
“If I could write everything that happened, I would shock the world” – Caterina Sforza, Lady of Imola, Countess of Forlì.
Now there is a lady I would love to have met. Sadly I don’t have a time machine, but I have at least met Adria Ripoli, and I am very grateful for that.