Bingo square: Book Club
I was super excited when my book club (internationals/ex-pats in my city who get together and read fantasy) agreed to read the newest Guy Gavriel Kay book. I’ve been absolutely loving GGK the past year or so (even if I haven’t written reviews of Tigana or A Song for Arbonne yet). Unfortunately, A Brightness Long Ago did not live up to my expectations.
Set in Batiara, a world like Renaissance Italy, the story follows Danio Cerra as he saves a young female assassin, Adria, from discovery after she kills a brutal and sadistic lord. He is swept into the middle of a bitter rivalry between two mercenary captains and the political machinations of the higher-up as the world holds its breath, waiting for the culmination of the siege of the once-great city of Sarantium.
The plot was very much in line with others of Kay’s. There was political intrigue, some military elements, hints of magic. But it felt like a pale imitation of others, lacking the power and impact of the duel in Lions or the twists of Arbonne. Kay’s prose is lush as always, although I was not as much a fan of the narrative style and voice as usual. In fact the narration–an affectation that the main character was retelling the story–was often intrusive, leeching away any tension from the plot with its constant asides. My group commented on the fact that so much of this plot seemed to be focused on minor characters (which Kay always does very well) that they didn’t seem to have much overall impact on the world in which they lived. The problem was also that the emotional connection was missing. I didn’t even tear up when a major character died (Kay normally has me bawling), and the inevitable fall of Sarantium (the Constantinople analogue) had little to no impact on me as a reader–probably because none of the main characters have anything to do with Sarantium at all.
I must admit, however, to liking a few of the minor character asides: the story of the foolish, ineffectual younger son of a powerful political family whose eyes are opened to the realities of life, not to mention the very brief but moving story of the young monk who goes to Sarantium. And certainly there are setpieces, like the wild horserace (even if, as one person in my group commented, we did not need to hear about the race from the perspectives of what felt like every single person in the audience!)
It’s tricky, because I think when you’ve been writing for years, some experimentation must be often needed on the part of the author–after all, no one can write the same book over and over–and it should not be rejected out of hand by fans. (Indeed, there were several references in this book to some of his others). The problem is that the focus is wrong and a lot of what is best about Kay is missing. Perhaps he was constrained in some way by the premise of the book, which is set out to be a prequel to Children of Earth and Sky (which I haven’t read and, after this, am not going to bump to the top of my GGK reading list).