Yet another book by one of my favourite authors, and once again a beautifully-realized story from a fantasy world parallel to our own that Kay has been crafting in painstaking detail throughout several novels. This story takes place in the same world as The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Sarantine Mosaic — the world with two moons, where the dominant Jaddites worship Jad the sun-god, the marginalized Kindath worship the sister moons, and the star-worshipping Asharites from the desert threaten the Jaddite world with their rising power. (So, basically, Christians, Jews and Muslims in medieval Europe and the Middle East … kinda).
This novel takes place hundreds of years after Al-Rassan and Sarantine, and there are many echoes and callbacks to the The Sarantine Mosaic and a few to Al-Rassan, but its closest links are to Kay’s last novel in this world, Children of Earth and Sky. Interestingly, Brightness is not a sequel but kind of a prequel to Earth and Sky — it takes place about 25 years earlier and sets up some of the events we see happening in that book.
So, that’s where it stands in the canon of Kay’s work, all of which I’ve read. This novel is the story of Guidanio Cerra, a tailor’s son given an education above his station, finding his place as a young man in a land which is, for all intents and purposes, pretty much Renaissance Italy, a land of warring city-states and larger-than-life leaders. Two of those leaders — Folco Cino d’Acorsi and Teobaldo Monticola di Remigio — are rivals whose paths both cross Guidanio’s at various points in his journey, and we see the world from both their perspectives as well. There are also two extraordinary women at the centre of this novel: Adria Ripoli, a Duke’s daughter who doesn’t want the life expected of a noblewoman, and Jelena, a pagan healer who lives on the margins of society. How the great events of the day intersect with these individual lives — especially how they shape Guidanio’s life into an unexpected path — is the meat of this book.
It’s almost misleading, at this point, to categorize Kay’s work as “fantasy,” even though the world in which this book is set has two moons instead of one, and different place names. He kicked off his career with a trilogy (The Fionavar Tapestry) that was very much classic high fantasy, but in his more recent novels he seems to be trying to see how little magic you can put into a novel and still have it shelved in the fantasy section. This isn’t a criticism: I love how good writers play around with the boundaries of genre. In Kay’s later novels, any fantastical elements are mostly contained within the religion and folklore of the characters’ worlds — things that they believe are miracles, or mystical experiences, or magic, just as people might do in a historical novel set in our world. Only two marginally “magical” things happen in this novel: one, a miracle that happens to an extremely minor character, and the second the appearance of a ghost to a major character that has no significant impact on the plot. Fantasy readers who are mainly interest in complex magical systems might find this disappointing, but the vividly detailed world-building is more than enough to draw me in and keep me reading.
I can divide Guy Gavriel Kay novels into those I’ve liked, and those I love passionately and would re-read over and over. While Brightness is beautifully written and I inhaled it in a couple of days, I think it might end up falling into the “liked” rather than “loved” category, simply because it’s not as plot-driven as some of his other books — I didn’t find myself breathless at the end, unable to rest till I knew how it ended. This is more a slice-of-life than a plot-driven book, and while it has great, richly realized characters, a key event three-quarters of the way through the novel made me far less invested in how the characters’ lives turned out. But a different reader might find this resonates differently. It is a beautiful addition to his canon of books.