A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay’s newest novel, A Brightness Long Ago, is a prequel to 2016’s Children of Earth and Sky but although they are set in the same world and share one or two characters, each book also works as a standalone. I think this is probably my favourite of the two, although I enjoyed both.

Like most of Kay’s novels, A Brightness Long Ago takes place in a land which closely resembles a real historical setting – in this case, Renaissance Italy. Our narrator is Guidanio Cerra of Seressa, a city which, with its lagoon and canals, clearly corresponds to Venice. Guidanio is looking back at events from his past, beginning with his time at the court of Uberto of Mylasia, a cruel tyrant who once ‘sealed an enemy in a cask to see if he might observe the soul escaping when his prisoner died’ and who has become known as the Beast due to his treatment of the young girls and boys he summons to his chamber at night. As the son of a humble Seressan tailor, Guidanio knows it is a great honour to have been given a position at Uberto’s court but he quickly discovers what sort of man he is serving and so he is not at all sorry when the Beast is assassinated one night by the latest young woman who has been brought to his rooms.

Her name is Adria Ripoli, the Duke of Macera’s daughter, and she is acting on the orders of her uncle, Folco Cino, a leader of mercenaries. Having witnessed Adria enter Uberto’s chamber to carry out the assassination, Guidanio helps her to escape before she can be captured. He expects never to see her again, but as chance would have it their paths do soon cross again and Guidanio finds himself drawn into the conflict between Folco Cino and his rival mercenary commander, Teobaldo Monticola, two powerful men whose actions could determine the fate of Batiara (Italy).

A Brightness Long Ago explores some of Kay’s favourite themes, such as chance encounters, the spinning of Fortune’s Wheel, and the idea that the small decisions each of us make every day of our lives could have wider repercussions, affecting not only our own future but the future of others too – in other words, that everything we do matters. These are topics that Kay returns to again and again in his novels but they seemed particularly dominant in this one and that was my only slight criticism of the book – not the ideas themselves, but the way the authorial voice is constantly reminding us that ‘things matter’. I would have preferred a more subtle approach, I think! Anyway, the writing was still as beautiful as I’ve come to expect; as some of you will know, I choose a quotation from every book I read for my end-of-month Commonplace Book posts – I will have a difficult choice when I come to put this month’s post together as almost every sentence in this book was worthy of being quoted!

The 15th century Italian (or Batiaran) setting was already familiar to me from Children of Earth and Sky, but even if you haven’t read that book, if you have any knowledge of Renaissance Italy you will probably be able to draw parallels between some of Kay’s characters and members of the Medici, Borgia and Sforza families, among others. There’s a dramatic horse race – one of the most memorable set pieces in the book – inspired by the real life Palio race which has taken place in Siena for centuries, and the fall of Sarantium (Constantinople) is also covered. The different names Kay uses for these people, places and events, along with the two moons in the sky – one blue and one white – mean this book can be classed as ‘historical fantasy’, but there aren’t really any other fantasy elements in the story at all. That’s not a problem for me, but if you’re new to Guy Gavriel Kay and hoping for something with magic and wizards, I would recommend starting with Tigana instead.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

I am looking forward to reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s new novel, A Brightness Long Ago, which will be published in May, but before starting that one I wanted to finally read a different book by Kay which has been on my shelf unread for a few years now. That book is Under Heaven, the first of two novels (the second is River of Stars) inspired by two different Chinese dynasties, Tang and Song.

Kay writes a type of historical fantasy where the emphasis is usually more on the historical than the fantasy. With most of his novels, I at least have a little bit of familiarity with the period on which his setting is based (Renaissance Italy, medieval Spain, the Vikings etc) but the setting of Under Heaven – a fictionalised Tang China – is one I’ve never read about before and of which I have absolutely no knowledge. That made this particular book a slightly more challenging read for me than the others I’ve read by Kay, but it has also left me wanting to know more about the real history of China during this period.

In the book, China is referred to as Kitai, with Tagur (Tibet) to the west. The novel opens with Shen Tai travelling to the battle site of Kuala Nor, where his father, an army general, once led the Kitan to victory against the enemy Taguran. Now his father is dead and Tai plans to spend the two year mourning period laying to rest the bones of the forty thousand dead, both Kitan and Taguran. It seems an impossible task, but Tai is determined to try anyway:

There were too many. It was beyond hope to ever finish this: it was a task for gods descending from the nine heavens, not for one man. But if you couldn’t do everything, did that mean you did nothing?

To acknowledge his efforts, the Empress of Tagur, once a Kitan princess, promises him two hundred and fifty magnificent Sardian horses as a reward – but Tai is not as delighted as you might expect him to be at receiving such a lavish gift. As he knows, ‘You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five of those glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank – and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.’ Imagine the danger a man could be in who possesses not just four or five but two hundred and fifty of these legendary animals! This is a life-changing moment for Tai and on his return journey to the imperial capital of Xinan he finds that he has become the centre of attention, with various factions at court all vying to take possession of the horses for themselves. These include An Li, a powerful military leader; Wen Zhou, the Prime Minister; and Wen Jian, the ‘Precious Consort’ of the elderly Emperor Taizu.

In a parallel storyline, Tai’s sister Li-Mei is being sent north beyond the Long Wall to Bogü (possibly Mongolia) where she is to marry the son of the Bogü leader. Marriage to a barbarian is not what Li-Mei had in mind for herself, but a chance to escape this fate comes when she is rescued by the mysterious Meshag, who takes her across the steppes on a journey as eventful and dangerous as Tai’s.

Kay’s female characters are always strong and interesting and I enjoyed following Li-Mei’s story as much as Tai’s. I’ve already mentioned Wen Jian, the emperor’s consort, who is a match for any of the men when it comes to manoeuvring her way through court politics, but my favourite of the women in the novel is Wei Song, the Kanlin warrior who is sent to protect Tai and takes her duties very seriously, even if it means putting her own life at risk. Of the male characters, apart from Tai himself, I particularly liked Bytsan sri Nespo, his Taguran friend who brings him the message about the Sardian horses, and Sima Zian, the famous poet who accompanies him to Xinan and becomes one of the few men he can trust.

Poetry runs through the novel, as does superstition, myth, legend and political intrigue – but there are only one or two small elements that you could really describe as fantasy (mainly at the beginning, with the ghosts of Kuala Nor – ‘outside in all seasons, moonlit nights and dark, as soon as the sun went down’). Most of the other Guy Gavriel Kay novels I’ve read are set in a world with one white moon and one blue, but the world of Under Heaven has only one (he makes a point of telling us that the poet Sima Zian has often dreamed of having another moon to write about). I’m curious to know why he decided to set this one in a different world to the others, especially as we were back to the two moons again in his most recent book, Children of Earth and Sky.

I will have to find out more about the Tang Dynasty and the An Shi Rebellion, but I’m also looking forward to reading River of Stars which is set four hundred years later, during the Song Dynasty. First, though, on to A Brightness Long Ago!

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

children-of-earth-and-sky I love Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, so I really don’t know why it is that I’ve read so few of them! I’ve had Under Heaven waiting on my Kindle since finishing The Last Light of the Sun more than a year ago, but for some reason there always seems to be something else that needs to be read first. When I noticed his latest novel, Children of Earth and Sky, in the library I decided to forget Under Heaven for now and read this one first, while I was in the mood for it.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s books are a wonderful and unique blend of fantasy and historical fiction. Children of Earth and Sky is set in the same world as several of his other novels, including The Lions of Al-Rassan – a world with two moons, one blue and one white, in which the three main religious groups are the sun-worshipping Jaddites, the Asharites who pray to the stars and the Kindath who worship the moons (corresponding to Christians, Muslims and Jews respectively). The action in this book takes place mainly in thinly disguised versions of Venice, Dubrovnik and Constantinople – which Kay renames Seressa, Dubrava and Asharias – in what is clearly supposed to be the Renaissance period.

The plot is quite a complex one, with multiple storylines which meet and intersect from time to time, so rather than attempting to describe it in any detail, I’m just going to mention a few of the characters we meet.

First, there’s Pero Villani, a young artist from Seressa, who has been sent on a mission to the Osmanli (Ottoman) court at Asharias with a commission to paint a portrait of the Grand Khalif, Gurçu the Destroyer. However, Seressa’s Council of Twelve have another task in mind for Pero to carry out at Asharias, one which could put his life in danger. The Council are also keen to place a spy in the rival republic of Dubrava and enlist the services of Leonora Valeri, a woman with a troubled past who welcomes the chance to escape from Seressa.

The ship on which Pero and Leonora embark on the first stage of their journey is owned by the family of Marin Djivo. As the younger son of a Dubrava merchant, Marin has a lot of experience of the world of trade and shipping, but this particular voyage is about to change his life. Sailing from Seressa to Dubrava, his ship is boarded by pirates from the walled town of Senjan, and among them is the archer Danica Gradek, a young woman who is desperate to prove herself as a warrior and avenge her family against the Osmanli. Finally, there’s Damaz, who was captured as a child and trained to fight in the Osmanli army.

The lives of these five characters become closely entwined as their paths cross, then part, then cross again, and the actions of one may have consequences – sometimes unintentional – which affect the lives of one or all of the others. Now that I’ve read several of Kay’s novels, I can see that this seems to be a recurring theme in his work.

I have been to both Venice and Dubrovnik – and would highly recommend visiting them if you haven’t already – and even though Kay’s versions have different names, the descriptions of both locations are still clearly recognisable. If you have a good knowledge of the history of Renaissance Europe, you should be able to draw historical parallels, as well as geographical, between this fantasy world and the real one – but remember that it is a fantasy world (even though the magical elements are small and understated), which gives Kay the freedom to take the story in any way he wishes without sticking rigidly to historical fact.

I found a lot to love about this book; my only disappointments were the ending and the lack of emotional engagement I felt with the characters. When I think of the thought-provoking epilogue that ended Tigana, or the dramatic conclusion of The Lions of Al-Rassan, that’s what was missing from Children of Earth and Sky. The novel’s various storylines were wrapped up too neatly and too completely at the end of the book and didn’t make much of an emotional impact on me, which was a shame after spending so long getting to know this set of characters.

This is not one of my favourite Kay novels so far, but I did enjoy it and am looking forward to reading the rest of his work, probably beginning with Under Heaven!

My Commonplace Book: September 2016

A summary of last month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

~

york-minster

Another high wall appeared ahead of us; York seemed a city of walls. Behind it the Minster loomed. Ahead was a large open space crowded with market stalls under brightly striped awnings that flapped in the cool damp breeze. Heavy-skirted goodwives argued with stallholders while artisans in the bright livery of their guilds looked down their noses at the stalls’ contents, and dogs and ragged children dived for scraps. I saw most of the people had patched clothes and worn-looking clogs. Watchmen in livery bearing the city arms stood about, observing the crowds.

Sovereign by CJ Sansom (2006)

~

But whereas the planets are serene in their separateness, knowing any collision with one another likely to destroy them and return them to dust, Fogg remarks that he, along with very many of his race, finds his Separateness the most entirely sad fact of his existence and is every moment hopeful of colliding with someone who will obscure it from his mind.

Restoration by Rose Tremain (1989)

~

elizabeth-of-york

“Do you like history?” he enquired.

“Oh, yes.” She turned eagerly to him, forgetting momentarily the splendour of the pageant. “It is about people, you see. The deeds they performed. The way they thought.”

Elizabeth the Beloved by Maureen Peters (1972)

~

Writing is a kind of magic. One person sits in a room alone and makes marks on a page that represent the images in her mind. Another person looks at those marks, weeks or months or a hundred years later, and similar images appear in that person’s mind. Magic. Plays and choreography hold yet another level of magic and meaning: the marks on the page leap to action in another person’s body, to be seen by thousands of others. The ability to weave that kind of magic paid well in Las Vegas.

The Hawley Book of the Dead by Chrysler Szarlan (2014)

~

He was a good husband. He had comforted her when she’d sobbed violently against his plump chest, then rested dry-eyed against it and tried not to remember all the things she no longer knew about her son. How tall was he now? Had the colour of his hair changed? Did he still wake sometimes in the middle of the night unable to breathe? Did he still like to find beetles in the cracks in a stone wall, or to look for hidden things beneath a rock?
Did he remember her at all?

Rebellion by Livi Michael (2015)

~

king-david

But the stories that grow up around a king are strong vines with a fierce grip. They pull life from whatever surfaces they cling to, while the roots, maybe, wither and rot until you cannot find the place from which the seed of the vine has truly sprung.

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (2015)

~

Three telephones kept ringing like demented things, and by post, telegram, wireless, and personal appearance the information poured in. Nine-tenths of it quite useless, but all of it requiring a hearing: some of it requiring much investigation before its uselessness became apparent. Grant looked at the massed pile of reports, and his self-control deserted him for a little.

A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey (1936)

~

“It is the only thing I know of to his advantage,” Judith said. “I will admit him to be an excellent whip. But for the rest I find him a mere fop, a creature of affectations, tricked out in modish clothes, thinking snuff to be of more moment than events of real importance. He is proud, he can be insolent. There is a reserve, a lack of openness—I must not say any more: I shall put myself in a rage, and that will not do.”

Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer (1935)

~

courbette

I heard the fanfare and recognised it; it was the entrance of Annalisa and her white stallion. The trumpets cut through the air, silver, clear and commanding. Old Piebald stopped grazing and lifted his head, with his ears cocked as one imagines a war horse might at the smell of battle and the trumpets. Then the music changed, sweet, lilting and golden, as the orchestra stole into the waltz from The Rosenkavalier.

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart (1965)

~

In books there were people who were always agreeable or tender, and delighted to do things that made one happy, and who did not show their kindness by finding fault. The world outside the books was not a happy one, Maggie felt; it seemed to be a world where people behaved the best to those they did not pretend to love, and that did not belong to them.

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (1860)

~

“I might be wrong, but I fancy that however much a girl may admire, or envy, the heroine of some romance, who finds herself in the most extraordinary situations; and however much she may picture herself in those situations, she knows it is nothing more than a child’s game of make-believe, and that she would not, in fact, behave at all like her heroine.”

Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer (1966)

~

nondescript

“You’re not shy, Julia,” he said. “It’s what I noticed first about you. How calmly you faced the world with that stupendous, utterly unnatural face of yours, and of course – you know the spirit in which I say that, it’s merely a stated fact – I knew then you were a natural. No no, there’s no doubt in my mind, no doubt at all, but that you’ll thrive.”

Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch (2016)

~

It happens this way sometimes, we can discover truths about ourselves in a moment, sometimes in the midst of drama, sometimes quietly. A sunset wind can be blowing off the sea, we might be alone in bed on a winter night, or grieving by a grave among leaves. We are drunk at a tavern, dealing with desperate pain, waiting to confront enemies on a battlefield. We are bearing a child, falling in love, reading by candlelight, watching the sun rise, a star set, we are dying…

But there is something else to all of this, because of how the world is for us, how we are within it. Something can be true of our deepest nature and the running tide of days and years might let it reach the shore, be made real there — or not.

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay (2016)

~

Favourite books read in September: Sovereign, Airs Above the Ground and Black Sheep

The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Last Light of the Sun I’m hoping to read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven soon for the Once Upon A Time challenge, but first I need to tell you about another of his novels which I read a few weeks ago: The Last Light of the Sun.

This is the third book I’ve read by Kay and like the other two (Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan) it is set in a fantasy world that closely resembles a real historical one. A blue moon and a white moon shine in the sky, faeries wait to claim the souls of the dead, and ancient magical forces lurk in the forest, yet the world portrayed in The Last Light of the Sun can easily be identified as Northern Europe in the time of the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons and the Celts.

In this re-imagined land, the Vikings have been renamed the Erlings, the Anglo-Saxons have become the Anglycn and the Celts have been transformed into the Cyngael. While the Erlings are sea-raiders who inhabit the islands in the far north, the Anglycn live in what is surely the country we now know as England, and the Cyngael live to the west, presumably in Wales. These lands of the Cyngael, on the western edge of the known world, are the last to see the light of the setting sun – and also form the final outpost of the new religion of Jad, the sun god.

Throughout the novel, we follow the adventures of three groups of characters from each of the three cultures I’ve described above. First, we meet Bern Thorkellson, a young Erling who has lost his lands and his freedom as a result of his father being exiled for murder. Desperate to escape and build a new life for himself, Bern joins a raiding party heading for the Anglycn shores. Meanwhile, in the Cyngael lands, two young princes called Alun and Dai happen to be spending the night at the home of a rival Cyngael warrior, Brynn ap Hywll, when it is attacked by another group of Erling raiders. Finally we get to know the family of the Anglcyn king, Aeldred, who has been trying to unite his people against the threat of the Erlings.

To describe the plot in any more detail would be difficult as it does become quite complex as the lives of each of these characters become entwined with all of the others. The author doesn’t really ‘take sides’ or favour one of the three cultures over the other two – perspectives and points of view are balanced fairly between the three and there are good people and bad within each group. Feuds and rivalries are formed, but so are friendships and loyalties as Erling, Anglcyn and Cyngael find that they need to adapt to a changing world.

One thing Kay does in this book, which I’m not sure I really like, is to occasionally leave his main characters behind for a while to explore the life of a completely new character who enters the novel for a few pages and then disappears, never to be mentioned again – as Kay himself describes it: “At the margins of any tale there are lives that come into it only for a moment. Or, put another way, there are those who run quickly through a story and then out, along their paths.” I can understand the reasons for this – to show us what is going on away from the central plot and the central characters – but I did find it slightly distracting.

This is a beautifully written novel, though, and as well as being an entertaining story, it’s also very thought-provoking in places. I particularly liked these two quotes:

“It happens this way. Small things, accidents of timing and congruence: and then all that flows in our lives from such moments owes its unfolding course, for good or ill, to them. We walk (or stumble) along paths laid down by people and events of which we remain forever ignorant. The road someone else never took, or travelled too late, or too soon, means an encounter, a piece of information, a memorable night, or death, or life.”

“A hard truth: that courage can be without meaning or impact, need not be rewarded, or even known. The world has not been made in that way. Perhaps, however, within the self there might come a resonance, the awareness of having done something difficult, of having done…something.”

I’ve loved all three of the Guy Gavriel Kay novels I’ve read so far and am looking forward to reading his others, beginning with Under Heaven. Have you read any of his books, and if so do you have a favourite?

New book arrivals

I’ve acquired some new books recently and thought I would share them here with you:

New books May 2014

The first three books were bought last week on a trip to my favourite book shop, Barter Books:

The Heaven Tree by Edith Pargeter – I’ve wanted to read this for years and was so pleased to find a copy. It’s the first in a trilogy and set during the reign of King John.

The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay – I’m looking forward to reading this as I enjoyed the other two Guy Gavriel Kay books I’ve read.

Bellarion by Rafael Sabatini – I don’t know anything about this book but I love Sabatini so of course I had to pick this one up!

The next book is a review copy received from Random House:

The Second Duchess by Elizabeth Loupas – The story of Barbara of Austria and her marriage to the Duke of Ferrara. I can’t wait to read this.

I won the final two books in Goodreads giveaways.

The Shining by Stephen King – I’ve read this before, as a teenager, and thought it might be fun to read it again. I didn’t really expect to win it!

The Walls of Byzantium by James Heneage – The first of a new series, The Mistra Chronicles, set in the final decades of the Byzantine Empire.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them?

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Lions of Al-Rassan Guy Gavriel Kay is only a recent discovery for me, but after reading Tigana in June I knew I wanted to read more of his work. Leander of The Idle Woman mentioned that she had been wanting to re-read The Lions of Al-Rassan, one of her favourite books, so we decided it would be interesting to read it at the same time and exchange our thoughts on it.

I should start by saying that although Kay is known as a fantasy author, this book has few, if any, elements that I would describe as ‘fantasy’ and is much closer to historical fiction. The story is set in a fictitious world very similar to medieval Spain. In the north, we have the sun-worshipping Jaddites – brave warriors and horsemen. The Jaddite lands have become divided and weakened over the years due to rivalries between their three kings but they still hope to one day ride south and reconquer the rest of the peninsula. In the south is Al-Rassan, the land of the Asharites, who worship the stars and who value poetry, music and beauty. After the death of their last Khalif, Al-Rassan has also become divided and is not as strong as it once was. Caught between the two are the wandering Kindath people, who pray to the two moons that shine in the sky, one blue and one white. Even with my very limited (almost non-existent) knowledge of Spanish history I could immediately see that the Jaddites represented Christians, the Asharites Muslims and the Kindath Jews.

As tension builds between the Jaddites and the Asharites and war begins to look inevitable, there are big consequences for the novel’s three central characters. One of these is Rodrigo Belmonte, Captain to a Jaddite king and one of the Jaddites’ greatest soldiers. When Rodrigo is exiled by his king he and his company find themselves in the Asharite city of Ragosa. Here he meets another great man, Ammar ibn Khairan, an Asharite who is also in exile, and the two form an instant connection. Our third protagonist is a woman, Jehane bet Ishak, a Kindath physician who joins Rodrigo’s company and becomes close to both men. With the peninsula heading rapidly towards conflict, will the bonds between Rodrigo, Ammar and Jehane be able to survive?

Now that I’ve read two of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels, it’s hard to say which I liked best because both were such great books. I think I found Tigana more fun to read (simply because I read fantasy so rarely these days and it was something a bit different for me to read a book with magic and wizards) but I found the writing in The Lions of Al-Rassan more powerful and the characters more fully developed. Ammar, Rodrigo and Jehane are all characters that I could love and admire, and considering their very different backgrounds and cultures, it’s quite an achievement that Kay could make it possible to identify with and care about all three of them.

Although this novel is set in a fictional land, the parallels with a real period of history made me feel that I was gaining a better understanding of medieval Spain. But as well as the history, there’s also a lot of drama and excitement throughout the novel: among other things, there are battles, assassination attempts (both successful and unsuccessful), and a masked Carnival. What I really loved about this book, though, was the portrayal of the three main characters and the relationships between them. It’s not as simple as Jehane being in love with both men (or them being in love with her) and having to choose between them; although there is a romantic aspect, the relationships are much deeper and more complex than that and encompass not just love but also friendship, loyalty and trust.

There’s a growing sense of sadness too as you start to approach the end of the book and wonder whether all three of Ammar, Jehane and Rodrigo will survive the coming conflict and how they will cope if they find themselves on opposite sides. The final chapter was one of the most tense and emotional I’ve read for some time, though I thought it would have been even more effective without the epilogue that followed (I was pleased to see that Leander felt the same as I was wondering whether I was the only person who would rather not have had the loose ends tied up).

I’m excited about the prospect of working my way through the rest of Kay’s books, but I’m sure I’ll want to re-read this one at some point too – preferably after I’ve had a chance to read up on Spanish history! If you would like to see what Leander thought of The Lions of Al-Rassan, you can read her post here.