Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay

April 29, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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I consider myself a big Guy Gavriel Kay fan. Although unlike some I don’t recommend his Finovar Tapestry, which I thought was occasionally moving but sabotaged by the uneven writing and world-building, I have liked everything he has written since. If you can suspend your disbelief and accept that the main characters will have very modern ideas about war and equality of class, race, and gender, Kay has written some great books.

So it’s difficult to admit that not only is Last Light of the Sun is my least favorite of Kay’s post-Finovar pseudo-historical work, but also indicative of a decline. Previously the Sarantine Mosaic duology, Kay’s second most recent work, was my least favorite of Kay’s history-based books.

That’s not to say Last Light of the Sun is a bad book by any means. From any other author I would consider it a book strong enough to make me put the author on my to-read list. The worst part of it is not the book itself, but the direction it seems Kay is going with his work. Those who have read and haven’t liked Kay’s post-Finovar work in the past should give this a pass. Those who haven’t read Kay at all should start with Tigana or Lions of Al-Rassan.

For those who have already read Last Light of the Sun, specifics follow.  If you haven’t read it and plan to, I’d suggesting avoiding the spoilers.

Notes on why I was disappointed:

  • The first issue I have is that it is not an epic story, but it feels like it is trying to be. There’s nothing wrong with writing a story that’s not an epic, and I’m not really going to get into the differences between what I consider epic storytelling and “smaller” stories, but suffice to say the writing style and detail seems modelled for the epic format, when the story is really more of a character piece.
  • Because frankly, not much happens: A prince dies in an unsuccessful Viking raid on a farmhouse. A follow-up raid gets stopped initially through the efforts of the English and then in Wales by three characters taking a walk through a forest and one self-sacrifice. Two characters who barely talk to each other the entire book get married, ostensibly aiding the integration of the Welsh and the English.
  • Given the lack of Momentous Events in the plot, one might assume character arcs will make up the difference. Unfortunately the characters don’t change all that much either. Two characters come to grips with their fathers and the rest come to grips with the existence of fairies (more on this later).
  • So what we’re left with is a snapshot of a slow change in the socio-political world of northwest Europe. The Vikings are losing strength, the Anglo-Saxons are gaining in military strength and becoming more civilized. The events in the book are merely the continuation (not even the culmination!) of trends that have been continuing since Alfred became King.
  • Kay seems to be increasingly interested in his Christian characters getting hit over the head with pagan mysticism. It was a major plot event in the Sarantine books, but here it is almost the only plot event. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for me. Watching Christian characters wrestle with their faith in the face of what is nearly (if not outright) proof that it is either false or hugely incomplete is not profound, it’s depressing and not in any way applicable to real life (where such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming). In Last Light of the Sun (as opposed to, say, Lions of Al-Rassan) there’s not even a religious tolerance case to be made, since belief in Celtic mysticism has already faded from organized practice to vague superstition by just about everyone.
  • Although Kay’s dialogue remains well-written, in this book his characters seemed almost entirely without flaws, unless you count the minor insecurities (OK, and a psycho-somatic illness) the male characters work their way through during the book. Alun’s problem is dealing with grief for his brother’s death, but all of his rash actions prove rewarding. Alfred’s fevers don’t even effect him during the book’s time frame.
  • Then there is the awkward writing. I don’t remember to what extent this showed up in previous books, but here Kay is almost obsessed with going into “ripples of fate” bit-character life stories about once a chapter. While often interesting in and of themselves, ultimately it is tiresome to be constantly diverted from the plot. Then there are the first-person-plural asides about the way “we live our lives”–which is just clumsy.
  • Finally, it is frustrating how little follow-through there is on what I felt were important or interesting parts of the narrative. For example, there isn’t any examination of how the Norse mythology causes (or reflects) some large differences in cultural values besides some half-hearted mentions of Valhalla. In fact, Norse mythology in general is given the short shrift, which is disappointing since I find it fascinating. Then there are other incidents, like the execution of the cornered Vikings by archer, where the cleric protests but nothing ever comes of it despite this being a much more important point than faeries in any historical context. And if he’s writing a fantasy novel and not historical fiction, why is the correspondance so rigorously 1:1?

While I originally thought it was a great idea to mine history for themes and settings, I think Kay is in a rut. I think he is less and less willing to depart from actual historical events and people. I hope in the future he goes back to his Tigana strategy of using history to inform without actually being all there really is.

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