A Brightness Long Ago, by Guy Gavriel Kay
This book is clearly part of a larger set of novels. Although this is the first of the novels by the author that I have read that has focused in his fictionalized universe in Europe–the first two novels I read of his were in his fictionalized version of China and the third was based on the real world–it is clear that this book has a larger context that is deeply interesting. And Kay’s interest in looking at decisive hinges in history does not fail him here, as a great deal of the power of this novel comes from the portrayal of condottiere quarrels in Italy during the Renaissance as well as the dramatic catastrophe that was the fall of Sarantium (Constantinople) for the Christians of the Balkans in particular. For the most part this book is a retrospective memoir of a man who was able to rise a great deal due to his pluck and his intellect and his loyal service to his city, and that makes it certainly a very appealing way to discuss the fragmentary but definitely interesting materials that the book contains, while also exploring young love and the nature of memory and grudges, all of which are deeply fascinating matters.
This novel is told in generally chronological fashion with a fair amount of foreshadowing by the book’s narrator, Guidanio Cerra, who is a merchant’s son schooled with elites who ends up finding work with a beastly duke who is soon killed by a beautiful young assassin who is part of another ducal family while working for her uncle. The young man finds his way in the world through his wits and pluck and meets up with her again later on, bedding her and then meeting her angry father, who later tries to have him killed. The young man works as a bookseller for a bit and then finds himself serving his state of Seressa (Venice) in the diplomatic corps, involved in Italy’s complex politics, including a struggle between two mercenary lords who hate each other because of various lies that have been spread around for decades, which result in a tragic act of violence and retribution while the two are negotiating while news comes that Sarantium has fallen, putting everyone off balance and allowing for the possibility of ordinary healers and the sons of merchants and mercenary bands and the second sons of dukes to act in ways that can shape the destiny of nations.
Overall, this book really has an Italian feel to it, which is for the best. Kay’s novels have occasionally looked at the rise of people even in very conservative social systems and this book is no different. There are the usual strong feminist themes of women who try to rise above the restrictions of their sex, even if it sometimes ends up badly, as it does for the young woman here who finds herself a victim of urban rioting in her family’s duchy. Likewise, there is little in the way of magic here except insofar as it relates to the author’s interests in ghosts and in the boundary between death and life and the way that some people have the power to speak with the dead and receive some sort of insight from them. The author also deals with the question of how it is that city states sought to preserve a rough balance of power and how it was that people grew up and grew into their responsibilities. Like a sparkling and witty tell-most memoir, this book shows Italy in a period of transition as its republics were about to face the foreign influence of Spain, France, and Austria as well as the religious wars that ended the Renaissance.