This review contains spoilers.
Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest novel A Brightness Long Ago is only barely fantasy; its participation in the genre is achieved by virtue of being set in an alternative Italy circa the 15th century. Batiara is a land made up of small city-states whose kings are endlessly battling for more territory and influence, hiring mercenary captains every spring to mount new campaigns against their neighbours. But Kay’s novel does not, as might be expected, centre on any one of these kings or city-states, or even focus its attention on such lofty figures. It begins when a minor functionary, Guidanio, chooses to help highborn Adria Ripoli escape after assassinating the cruel king Uberto of Mylasia instead of turning her in. His choice fundamentally alters the shape of his life: some months later he falls into the company of Teobaldo Monticola, one of Batiara’s most famous mercenary captains and the sworn enemy of fellow mercenary captain Folco d’Acorsi, on whose orders Adria killed Uberto. This, then, is the story of Teobaldo and Folco, their rivalry and their complex struggle for power, as seen through the eyes of the bit-players of history.
A key theme of the novel is the way in which a single choice can change the course of a life; the randomness with which a person’s fate can shift. This also means that events in the novel can seem (designedly) arbitrary or sudden – the one major female character is dead three-quarters of the way through, a decision I’m side-eying even as I recognise that it’s a feature not a bug. (But then I’m a little tired of writers using minorities to illustrate Big Themes instead of writing them as actual people.)
It’s a novel that achieves that sought-after affect of long-form contemporary fantasy, immersiveness: it is meticulously researched, a window into a certain kind of life in fifteenth-century Italy (although it’s notable that none of its characters suffer from the worst excesses of poverty – even the itinerant healer Jelena generally has enough to live on). Its characters are well-observed and nuanced in a way that genre rarely provides. It’s undoubtedly a complex and well-structured novel. And yet, five or six months later, I could remember hardly anything about it, and I have still less to say about it. Perhaps its very nuance, its commitment to realism, works against it in this historical moment: the speculative field is currently grappling with concerns about decolonisation, the forces of global capital, the oppression of LGBT+ folk and POCs, and in doing so is drifting slowly towards a sort of deconstruction of what the novel is. Not only is A Brightness Long Ago not interested in any of that stuff (it certainly doesn’t feel like a novel published in 2019), its realistic mode is associated with bourgeois conceptions of the self and of subjectivity that speculative fiction as a whole is currently pushing against. I also think that nuance is not a thing that stands up well in the minds of readers living through a global pandemic; I know I need plot, or at least themes I am strongly interested in, to engage my much-distracted interest at the moment.
I don’t want to underserve A Brightness Long Ago, or suggest that it is not doing anything unusual: its unflashy take on historical fantasy and its interest in people with relatively little privilege are both refreshing. I’m just interested in interrogating why it hasn’t stuck with me, when it is obviously made with such care.