A Brightness Long Ago is a novel for our times, even though it is set in an alternate-universe medieval Italy torn by warring cities, scheming politicians and religious leaders, and shadowed by the siege of the holy city of Sarantium (Constantinople).
The narrative is told by Guidanio Cerra, who is present for many of the major events of the book, though their significance only becomes clear to him in hindsight. I was put off at first by the first-person narration—Guy Gavriel Kay excels at third-person, dancing between restricted and omniscient views to great effect—but it grew on me as the novel progresses. Guidanio’s musings are fairly infrequent interjections, and serve a practical purpose in contextualizing the multiple moving parts of what could be very confusing political maneuvers, as well as giving insight into his own thoughts and feelings on what has transpired.
Emphasis on the word “feelings.” Kay’s novels have always been defined by a sense of deep sorrow and nostalgia, seemingly perfected in Brightness. Importantly, though, the book provides many instances of uplifting emotional counterpoints in the everyday mundanities of humans living their lives, unaware for the most part that they are in a significant place at a significant time, or that their chosen actions will decide the course of history. Some silly characters make idiotic mistakes out of fear, or anger, or for love, serving to ground major events that might otherwise seem too large-scale and abstract in basic human reality.
I am especially pleased with the female characters in Brightness, who stand off the page as fully realized as their male counterparts. For example, noblewoman Adria Ripoli is an assassin, but is never presented to readers as an anomaly by the narration, despite her singularity in her own society. She is far from the only named, influential female character. The Bechdel test is passed multiple times despite period-typical sexism and while female—and non-hetero—sexuality is not fetishized, neither is it denied or erased.
Brightness explores the ramifications of gigantic, life-altering, world-shifting events by focusing on the individuals living—and dying—at a remove, yet caught up in events of immense importance to their own lives. At a moment of major socio-political events in our own world that seem simultaneously immediate yet untouchable, Brightness reminds readers that history is made up of small, human-sized moments, and its course is never in anyone’s control, least of all those who think it is.
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