A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay — book review

Untitled drawing (5).jpgPerhaps if Guy Gavriel Kay had paid more attention to his story and his characters, rather than devoting himself to the cadence of his carefully orchestrated prose, I would have been able to enjoy reading A Brightness Long Ago more than I did…the first few chapters are compelling but what follows is a repetitive, wearisome, and occasionally pedantic tale.

The story is supposedly set in a fictional world vaguely reminiscent of Renaissance Italy however, for the most part, Guy Gavriel Kay often chooses to create his own ‘Italian-sounding‘ names and words rather than using ones that exist in the Italian language. Although ‘fictive‘ the historical setting of his novel provides a convincing backdrop to a story of intertwining fates and a feud between two opposing mercenaries (which is the recurring narrative that connects the characters’ storylines together).
While there is an emphasis on how this is a polyphonic novel, the characters’ voices do not all have the same weight or page-space. For example, only one character is allowed to narrate his experiences directly, through a first person perspective, so that he can relate the events surrounding his involvement in this ‘feud’ in an intimate and immersive way. We follow the others through a somewhat detached third perspective which made for a rather imbalanced portrayal of these characters. The switch between 1st and 3rd perspective could at times be a bit jarring…often Kay would relate the same event from different characters’ pov, which made for a few repetitive scenes…
The beginning of the novel introduces us to some of the ‘players’ of the story, and while there is an emphasis on them being ‘side-characters‘ to the main conflict of the overall narrative—the feud between these two mercenary—they actually have quite an important impact on the outcome of this drawn-out fight.
Time and again we are reminded by Danio or by the omniscient narrator that small choices—made on the spur of the moment—will often have life-altering consequences. Often the narrative will make the point of saying that an individual’s fate can be shaped by a small decision. This actually felt like the main ‘argument’ of the story: the paths of these characters are shaped by chance decisions…I understood this 25% percent in, so it was a bit tiresome to be reminded of this throughout the entire novel.
Ambition and freedom of choice are the recurring themes in the ‘seemingly’ ordinary characters of this novel. The stakes never felt that ‘high’ in that the narrative reported important moments in a distant, almost objective, manner. A lot of these characters never seem to be guided by strong emotions, seeming instead puppets in the narrative’s hands. If the narrative wants to make a point about faith or luck it will do so by making the character say or do something, regardless if this fits with the characters’ storyline and/or personality.
I wish that Kay had spent more time on fleshing out his world rather than half-relying on his readers’ vision of the Italian Renaissance. He does not inform us on the prominent religion of his world (once or twice a few characters allude to a nondescript god) or the culture prevailing in each city. There is a ‘race’ in one city and that’s about it. I wanted to know more about the food, the dialects, the history…pretty much about everything. But Kay seemed more focused on spinning carefully phrased paragraphs…and the thing is that he can write beautifully contemplative phrases which often articulate with clear-cut precision the importance of each choice his characters made…however, a pretty and intelligent prose does not compensate a drawn-out story which lacked both emotional depth and a bit of ‘sizzle’.
I’m not sure I will try to read a book by Kay again…or at least not anytime soon.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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