Title: A Brightness Long Ago
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Are there LGBT characters? Yes, one who is a major point of view character, and a secondary minor character.
Brief summary / book review: This is another one of Kay’s works set in the same universe as some of his previous works, such as the Sarantine Mosaic, Lions of Al Rassan, and Children of Earth and Sky. The setting is a riff off Renaissance Italy (named Batiara in this case) and takes place in various city-states that are clear analogues of cities like Venice, Florence, Milan, Rome, and Siena.
In my review for Children of Earth and Sky, I expressed a bit of frustration and disappointment with Kay’s portrayal of LGBT characters. Are things better in A Brightness Long Ago? Resoundingly, yes.
In my review for Children of Earth and Sky, I wrote:
… gay characters are always verging on uncomfortable stereotypes — they’re almost always seemingly perfumed, fey, leering at the main characters. Not all of them are like that, of course, but it’s happened enough that it begins to resemble a pattern and increasingly takes me out of his works more and more.
I ended the post by wishing that Kay, who is probably my favorite writer, by the way, would bring the same care and attention that he does to his other characters, to his LGBT characters.
In Brightness, he succeeds. The main point of view character I mentioned above is a bisexual woman; at first I worried he was going to lean into the “sexy bi girl” trope — she just can’t be contained! She has a lusty appetite for life! But after wobbling a bit at the start, the character settles down and is allowed to have an authentic character voice and inner life that is rich and warm and compelling; exactly what I had hoped for.
What really convinced me that Kay had a much better handle on LGBT characters than I gave him credit for in Children of Earth and Sky was the inclusion of a (very) minor gay male character. It’s honestly a sweet storyline, even if it only took up the space of an extended scene. It’s not a throwaway scene either; it’s directly tied to one of the events that changes the path of the plot in the book. And there was not a single mention of him being perfumed, fey, or lecherous. My only complaint is that I wish we got to see more of this story! But I do recognize that this wasn’t the story the book was trying to tell.
No, this whole story is a lot like Tigana, in that its central theme is memory. In a move that’s a little unusual for Kay, the main character is seen through the first person, and large portions of the book are this character talking about his past. It’s a wistful book, beautifully written like all of Kay’s others, with vivid characters and exciting scenes (the horse race scene stands out — between this and the chariot races in the Sarantine Mosaic, Kay knows how to do a good chase scene!).
The characters in the book aren’t the only wistful ones. Kay is, too. The book is a love letter written to the other stories in his universe — there are plenty of references to Sailing to Sarantium, to Lions of Al Rassan, Children of Earth and Sky (naturally, since the events of this book take place immediately beforehand), and even Last Light of the Sun. A Brightness Long Ago doesn’t just feature the reflections of the characters; it also features a lot of Kay’s own memories of his other works.
This is probably Kay’s best book in recent years. It’s a rich and rewarding read.
About the ‘Are There LGBT Characters’ series of posts: Being a gay reader, I am interested in LGBT books, but I haven’t always seen reviews clearly note if there are LGBT characters and how significant they are. These mini reviews are my way of addressing this problem.