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Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
A chance encounter with J.R.R. Tolkien’s son Christopher in the early 1970s led to a golden opportunity for Guy Gavriel Kay—then only 20 years old—to travel to Oxford and work on the posthumous publication of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. When Kay returned to Canada, he knew he wanted to write. Nine novels and one book of poetry later, this Toronto-based author has established himself as the primary voice of a genre—historical fantasy—that he created and pretty much occupies all on his own.
Authors of standard historical fiction strive for verisimilitude within their chosen historical period; Jack Whyte, for instance, attempts to root his version of the mytho-historical record of King Arthur (most recently in Clothar the Frank) as firmly in the history books as he can.
Kay’s method, however, is to create his own imaginary place modelled after a specific time and place in our history. His first such effort, Tigana (1990), took 15th century Italy as its inspiration, and since then, he has tackled medieval France (1992’s A Song for Arbonne), Spain under Islamic rule (1995’s The Lions of Al-Rassan), and the Byzantine Empire (a two-book series entitled The Sarantine Mosaic made up of 1999's Sailing to Sarantium and 2000's Lord of Emperor).
The Last Light of the Sun looks north to lands connected by a cold, black sea, and contested by savage marauders, lyrical poets, and soldiers who are just starting to see the benefit of thinking before fighting. These three cultures—the Vikings, Celts/Welsh, and Anglo-Saxons under Alfred the Great about a thousand years ago—are redrawn as the Erlings of Vinmark, the Cyngael, and the Anglcyn in Kay’s version.
It is an ambitious novel that succeeds in presenting each of these three civilizations in detail. The focus is justifiably on the Anglcyn who are on the verge of becoming the dominant culture in the region. Their King Aeldred is rebuilding his realm after it was nearly destroyed by Erling raiders a generation earlier. Aeldred is using some radical ideas: he wants his soldiers to learn to read, for one, and he is trying to unite his people with their neighbours across the Rheden Wall, the Cyngael, in spite of longstanding mutual enmity.
But Kay does not allow either the Erlings or the Cyngael to become a third wheel or stock villain in this story. The Erling culture is seen through the eyes of Bern Thorkellson and his father, “Red Thorkell”, who was once a famous member of the Jormsvik mercenaries who harried the Anglcyn and Cyngael coasts for years. The Cyngael are represented mainly by Alun ab Owyn, who becomes heir to his father’s throne when his older brother Dai is killed in an Erling raid, and by Ceinion, the Cyngael’s high cleric.
It may sound complicated, and it is, but Kay handles his storylines deftly, bringing together characters on a common quest, and tying up the loose ends with unexpected twists and suspenseful surprises. The tone of the book changes as the plot shifts its focus between the three cultures. This is especially evident in the Erling sections: these are harsh, violent people who live in rugged lands with unforgiving climates, and the writing reflects this with curt, jarring sentences and jagged dialogue.
What sets Kay apart from most other fantasy authors is his unwillingness to settle for convention or formula. He focuses on characterization in a genre that usually relies solely on driving action (even Tolkien spent relatively little time developing characters). Kay’s characters are well-rounded, complex individuals. He tends to give women more independence than their historical counterparts may have enjoyed, but not unrealistically so. And no one is exempt from the chopping block; one of Kay’s trademarks is his willingness to kill off just about any character, no matter how popular, if it best serves the story.
Guy Gavriel Kay puts “about a year’s worth” of research in before he even begins to write a book, and it shows. He reads voraciously on the chosen subject, and tries to travel to the country, or even write there. This comes through in the extraordinary authenticity of his settings, even though they are fictional reflections of the real places. One of the most active debates between fans chatting on his website (www.brightweavings.com) is whether to research the real cultures Kay writes about before or after reading his novels. In either case, his books clearly lead readers to want to learn more about the real history behind the stories.
Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who recently completed
his first novel, a literary baseball story called Mudville.
Copyright © Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.