A Brightness Long Ago

Written by Guy Gavriel Kay
Review by Judith Starkston

Guy Gavriel Kay is the master at writing fantasy that is richly based in a particular historical time and place, and, at the same time, is set in a fantastical world with two moons and mysticism and magic. A Brightness Long Ago evokes Renaissance Italy. The names of cities and famous people are shifted—Venice is Seressa, for example—but the qualities that identify them are retained. Seressa is a dominant mercantile city with canals.

The novel’s twin themes pertain to memory and the role of chance in life. A young man, Danio, recognizes a highborn woman disguised as a peasant and takes an unexpected role in the assassination she commits. From this act, his life becomes entwined with another unconventional woman who has mystic healing powers and with two mercenary leaders who dominate relations between the warring city-states. The thoughts of the dead, another fantastical element, add depth to these paired themes of chance and memory. One contemplates, “The dead… seem to be all about wishing things had been otherwise… Such a short life… No mark made upon the god’s world. No ripples. Most lives are like that.” What gives a life meaning? What choices do we look back upon and realize those chance moments made all the difference?

Some men or women—Kay develops the women most attractively here—shine far brighter than others, and why they do is important. Kay reveals his mastery also in his choice of narrative point of view. Danio, as an old man looking back in first person, carries the main job of pulling the reader in. Kay also puts us into a series of close-third narrators without creating any confusion. Through these multiple immersions, the reader considers how differently perception and memory ring for each person. Another brilliant novel from a literary giant.