A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Garivel Kay

May 24, 2019

In a chamber overlooking the nighttime waterways of a maritime city, a man looks back on his youth and the people who shaped his life. Danio Cerra’s intelligence won him entry to a renowned school even though he was only the son of a tailor. He took service at the court of a ruling count–and soon learned why that man was known as the Beast.

Danio’s fate changed the moment he saw and recognized Adria Ripoli as she entered the count’s chambers one autumn night–intending to kill. Born to power, Adria had chosen, instead of a life of comfort, one of danger–and freedom. Which is how she encounters Danio in a perilous time and place.

Vivid figures share the unfolding story. Among them: a healer determined to defy her expected lot; a charming, frivolous son of immense wealth; a powerful religious leader more decadent than devout; and, affecting all these lives and many more, two larger-than-life mercenary commanders, lifelong adversaries, whose rivalry puts a world in the balance.

A Brightness Long Ago offers both compelling drama and deeply moving reflections on the nature of memory, the choices we make in life, and the role played by the turning of Fortune’s wheel.

When we first meet Danio Cerra he is an earnest young man, keen to make his mark on the world. The son of a lowly tailor, he dreams of making a better life for himself. Opportunity is kind and he has the chance to gain an education. Going to a good school is the one thing likely to open some doors. Danio has a quick wit, and knows just the right things to say and when to say them

Once he leaves school he finds himself in the employ of an infamous count, this allows him to rub shoulders with the great and the good. The two most prominent people in Danio’s life are two mercenary captains, Folco Cino d’Acorsi and Teobaldo Monticola di Remigio. For years, Folco and Monticola have been at loggerheads. Their animosity towards one another is common knowledge, each continually trying to score points off the other.  By chance or misfortune, depending on your perspective, Danio is thrust into the midst of their escalating feud.

I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pity for our protagonist. Interspersed throughout the story there are short chapters where an older Danio recalls his memories of times long passed. He remembers moments of joy and fleeting episodes of happiness, but there is also regret and missed opportunity. I got the distinct impression this older, wiser Danio continues to brood over the outcome of choices he has made.

The other character worthy of note is Adria Ripoli. Born into nobility, she finds herself just as confined by her place in society as Danio. Adria is headstrong and independent in a world where she is not expected to be either of those things. Her tenacity and steadfast refusal to conform to expectations felt palpable.

The plot explores a multitude of ideas; politics, class, religion, and the nature of conflict are all touched upon. There are battles and assassinations a plenty, but there are also far subtler moments. One of my favourite chapters discusses the outcome of a horse race and the ramifications it has for the population of an entire city, which in turn has fallout elsewhere. I was impressed by the way the author crafted the connective tissue of his narrative.

Fans of The Erebus Sequence by Den Patrick may consider checking out A Brightness Long Ago. There is a similar faux Italian Renaissance setting. You’ll find power hungry city states and mercenary captains vying for power with one another. These political machinations have a suitably Machiavellian air. I’m always a fan of schemes within schemes. There is a sense of moral ambiguity in many of the characters and I found my allegiances shifting from chapter to chapter. Danio suffers all manner of doubts about the people he meets. When everyone has an ulterior motive, who can you trust?

The language the characters use is also a high point. The verbal sparring back and forth keeps you on your toes. A razor-sharp quip can be as deadly as any sword. There are moments that feel very nearly Shakespearean. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would be seething with barely concealed envy. What with all the various plots, its not a surprise to discover even a simple correspondence can be peppered with hidden meaning. I love it when an author offers a reader the opportunity to engage their brain. Everything is so precise and well-crafted I found myself completely engrossed on multiple occasions.

I’ll be honest, I’ve never read any of this author’s other work so I had absolutely no preconceived notions going in. Consider me a covert, I loved A Brightness Long Ago. There is a weight, a sense of history to the story that I never expected. It almost fells like I was reading something that had been transcribed from centuries ago. If you enjoy your historical fiction with the subtlest of fantastical elements then you should definitely check this out.

My music recommendation had to be something that fit the evocative flourish of Kay’s prose. After a bit of thought I settled on the soundtrack to Assassin’s Creed II by Jesper Kyd. It has just the right Renaissance-esque flavour that matches the tone of the novel.

A Brightness Long Ago is published by Hodder and is available now. Highly recommended.

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