In Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest novel, the award-winning Canadian fantasy author takes us back to Bataria – the setting of his last book, Children of Earth and Sky – a realm that, for all intents and purposes, is Renaissance Italy.
The narration in A Brightness Long Ago is primarily told through the eyes of Guidanio Cerra, writing from the vantage point of a man in his 40s, looking back at events that transpired in his youth, about two decades before the action of the previous novel.
Brightness explores the effects that impulsive decisions and coincidences can have, not just on the perpetrators, but on all those they interact with.
Guidanio, the son of a tailor from Seressa, isn’t the main protagonist of the book, although the decisions he makes affects those who are: two rival mercenaries, Folco d’Arcosi and Monticolo di Remigio.
Like Renaissance Italy, Bataria is made up of wealthy city-states. The peninsula is also the home of the city of Rhodias, the seat of the high patriarch, leader of the western Jaddite faith. To the east, the hated Asherites are sacking the City of Cities, Sarantium.
Folco and Monticolo have been bitter rivals since their youth. Notorious mercenaries, they are revered and feared throughout the peninsula. Their rivalry and hatred consumes them, yet they respect each other.
Guidanio is drawn into their story, first as a witness to Folco’s attempt on the Count of Mylasia’s life, then as a confidante and accomplice to Monticolo, who disrupts Folco’s plan to claim the county of Mylasia.
Guidanio joins Monticalo’s band by chance. It is these “forks in the road,” these random circumstances, that change the characters’ lives. On the way to the famous horse race of Bischio, he comes across Monticalo and his retinue, also travelling along the same road. One of the mercenary’s men is drawn to the horse Guidanio is riding and wants to take it from him. Guidanio stands fast, refusing to just hand it over, and his bravery draws the attention of Monticalo, who intercedes and suggests Guidanio races his horse with Monticalo’s soldier, the winner taking the horse.
Although these mercenaries and their rivalry are the prime subjects of Brightness, several characters, like Guidanio, dance on the outskirts, drawing the attention of the mercenaries and influencing their actions.
One such character is Adria Ripoli, a young woman of noble birth, and Folco’s niece.
One of Kay’s strengths is his use of strong female characters throughout his works. As a noblewoman, Adria should be aspiring to matrimony, becoming a dutiful wife, ruling with her husband and bearing heirs. But reluctantly, her parents, seeing the wildness in her, allow her to defer such a life – at least for now.
Adria is brave and adventurous. She believes it is untrue to think of women as being softer than men and chooses to be fully alive in a world normally hostile to ambitious women. She volunteers to help Folco in his dangerous plot to kill Count Uberto, a sadistic beast who rapes and mutilates young people – an action that sets the events of the novel rolling.
Adria also plays the key part in the exciting horse race of Bischio, which colours the middle of the book with a re-creation of the real horse races that take place in Siena, Italy, to this day.
Typical of his lyrical and poetic composition style, Kay paints such a vivid description of the races and the city that hosts it, one can almost smell and breathe the air:
“Bischio, in the week of its race, was famously disrupted. The city gates stayed open all night, there was no curfew, torches burned everywhere. Men and women of all kinds were in the streets: card players and dice throwers and jugglers and whores. Soldiers, and acrobats. Loud sellers of potions to cause love or ease pain, or kill an enemy or an unwanted child in the womb. Clerics preaching and wine sold. Clerics drinking wine. Touts for the race offered betting odds in quickly assembled booths on almost every corner. Everyone laying wagers.”
Adria chooses to make participating in this heated, dangerous race her final rebellious act. Only one woman has raced before, and she got severely maimed when rounding the sharp curve at the centre of the racecourse.
The race builds to a climax that rivals that of Ben-Hur. It is told through the points of view of the participants and the spectators, the narration breathlessly switching from one to the other, matching the pace of the galloping horses.
All the while, hundreds of miles to the east, on the periphery of the book’s action, the Asherites, the hated infidels, are laying siege to Sarantium, a moment in time that, though so far away, will have a profound impact on all the key players of this book.
Although Kay is primarily known as a fantasy writer, his novels are set in recognizable places that are similar to Constantinople, Italy or even China. But Brightness is based less on fantasy than anything else he’s written. While the setting, like that of his earlier novels, Lions of Al-Rassan and Sailing to Sarantium, is in a world similar to Renaissance Europe, but with two moons and worshippers of the sun god Jad, there are a lot fewer ghosts and supernatural events than in his earlier books.
A Brightness Long Ago could just as easily be historical fiction set in Italy. The Bischio race, the merchant cities, the sacking of Sarantium and even the two mercenaries are based on real-life people and events.
As such, this book, while appealing to his legion of fans, will also find an audience in lovers of medieval historical fiction.