It would be a stretch of the truth to say Guy Gavriel Kay is anything but an accomplished story-teller. He crafts his work with elegance, passion, and detail. You would think with that praise I would rate his work higher than I do, for certainly there is much here to engage the reader.
However, having read almost all of Kay’s canon of literary works, I have come to recognize there is formula to what he writes. There is always the femme fatale. There is always the dashing rogue. There is always the clash against the immutable forces of political or religious power. It’s the same story, different cover, different title, and while each novel is definitely immersive, wonderful escapist literature, it also is endlessly formulaic.
And then there’s the historical influence in each of Kay’s stories. In this novel it’s very much the history of the Italian city states during the powerful influence of the Medici, and the warring dukes and mercenary captains of the period.
It is the same with all of his other works. Change the names and do a bit of liberal interpretation, you still end up with a pseudo-history of China, or Spain, or Byzantium, or France. Given the considerable research Kay has undertaken to write about these empires and their places in history, one wonders why he just didn’t write historical novels. Certainly there is little to no magic in any of his work, so the stories cannot be considered fantasy. It’s all alternate history with a twist, and with similar characters placed upon the boards.
Given all that, A Brightness Long Ago remains firmly in the genre of entertaining alternate history, rather than elevating to something quite beyond and memorable, even haunting. Thus a rating of three stars for me, rather than four or five.
If you’re looking for escapist reading: A Brightness Long Ago may be just your next go-to. However, if you’re looking for more than a snack, you may want to give it a pass.