A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay
Hodder & Stoughton, pb, £9.99
Reviewed by Joely Black
Kay is already well known in the fantasy world for his work on the Tolkien estate and his previous novels. This time, he has chosen to focus his attention on the world late Medieval, early Renaissance Italy, and the complex politics surrounding the clash of families vying for power and fortune. As you might expect from Kay’s work, it has everything one might expect, from banker families exerting control through religious authority, the rise of smaller city states run by former mercenaries, to outright assassinations. This will appeal to anybody with an interest in the period, and fantasy that works on very specific historical periods.
Kay’s world is well-researched and cleverly built. Like Martin’s Game of Thrones, it has the appeal of working on from a detailed understanding of its period. The connection to Renaissance Italy is much more pronounced and obvious however, and Kay has not done much to disguise his inspiration: Firenti is clearly Florence, for example. However, this isn’t necessarily a limitation of the work, given that it is fascinating to see how he has used the material to build a world of such depth and nuance. Kay has even gone so far as to reference Italy’s ancient history, and for any Classicist, the Ancients will be a nod back to Rome and its imperial record, as well as how much it influenced the late Medieval world of vying city states and powerful religious leadership.
The writing takes its time. This is not a rushed or high-paced novel by any means, but it is no less tense. First following the perspective of Danio, who looks back on his life as a young man bearing witness to the assassination of his master, then the woman who committed the murder, and back again. As the story unfolds, we meet a remarkable cast of characters, including the devious but likeable Folco, plotting to improve his position, Monticola trying to maintain his own, and everyone in between.
Given the period, Kay has done well to present female characters with depth and ingenuity. He does not shy away from the difficulties women faced, but that has not led to one-dimensional characters shorn of any purpose critical to the story. Indeed, Adria proves to be central, from her opening role in the assassination of Uberto onward.
For those who want their fantasy a little more abstracted from source material, the connections might seem rather too thinly veiled. However, it is also enjoyable to see how effectively a close relationship between inspiration and result can work to bring both to life. This might well inspire a number of readers to explore Italy’s fifteenth century in more detail, as it certainly deserves the attention. Meanwhile, Kay as proved his expertise at producing detailed, effective fantasy that is well-worth reading.