A Brightness Long Ago

41458663._sy475_A Brightness Long Ago* by Guy Gavriel Kay

I read it as an: ARC

Source: a friend who lent me her ARC

Length: 423 pp

Publisher: Berkley

Year: 2019

In Kay’s newest historical fantasy set in a quasi-Renaissance version of Italy, themes of memory and fate are woven throughout the tale in the memories of Guidanio Cerra. Cerra recalls his life, starting with the day he helped the highborn Lady Adria di Ripoli get away after assassinating a tyrant. From there, his life brings him into contact with Folco Cino and Teobaldo Monticola, both mercenary leaders and bitter rivals. They all revolve around one another’s lives, orbiting around the shared sphere of power, dominance, and subtle machinations of politics and war, through the lens of distant memory. Most of the events are viewed from Cerra’s point of view as his life touches Cino’s, Monticola’s, and Adria’s, along with some more minor characters such as the healer Jelena or a young cleric.

The pseudo-Renaissance Italian land of Batiara is richly described with a deep history of its own. The land and settings are life-like and made me feel as though I’d fallen through the pages into the scene directly; I could see and smell and feel everything he described as though I was really there. Every character, no matter how minor they first seem, is fully developed and identifiable. I love the way Kay takes these minor characters and later shows their connection to the main events, or has them come back in unexpected ways. He provides an interesting discussion on the concept of fate and choice, and how even seemingly small choices can have a dramatic impact on the course of one’s life. Everything is connected and has a purpose in his writing, and Kay is a master at teasing out every bit of detail from a scene. 

I’ve always found Kay’s writing style to be really interesting. In the hands of a different author, it might not work for me, but Kay can transport me into his carefully crafted world, full of a multitude of characters, without confusing me or disrupting the narrative flow. He uses language alternately to soothe and to jar the reader into a deeper reflection of the overarching themes in his works. His ability to do so with singular skill is rare, and an utter delight to read.

This works as a standalone novel, though it would be excellent to read along with Kay’s Sarantium Mosaic since they are connected. Very highly recommended.

Favorite line(s):

  • We are always the person we were, and we grow into someone very different, if we live long enough. Both things are true.
  • The sailors say the rain misses the cloud even as it falls through light or dark into the sea. I miss her like that as I fall through my life, through time, the chaos of our time.
  • Shelter can be hard to find. A place can become our home for reasons we do not understand. We build the memories that turn into what we are, then what we were, as we look back. We live in the light that comes to us.

The Harp of Kings

43316755._sy475_The Harp of Kings (Warrior Bards)* by Juliet Marillier

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Netgalley 

Length: 464 pp

Publisher: Ace

Year: 2019

Liobhan has dreamed of joining the elite group of warriors from Swan Island since she was a little girl. She and her brother Brocc, both talented musicians, have gained places in the newest group of Swan Island trainees and she is determined to earn a permanent position there. Another trainee, Dau, seems by turns as determined as Liobhan to win a spot as he does to make sure she does not. When their trainers Innan and Archu decide that these three trainees will accompany them on an actual mission to the kingdom of Briefne to retrieve the magical Harp of Kings, required to coronate the new king Rodan, Liobhan learns the true meaning of what it will mean to become a Swan Island warrior. 

I am always thrilled to get a new Juliet Marillier book and I enjoyed this one immensely. I did think the writing wasn’t as tight as many of her previous books, in particular Daughter of the Forest or the Blackthorn and Grim series. However, this was still a great story with interesting new characters and quite a few easter eggs for her long-time readers. 

Each chapter is told from the first person point of view of one of the trainees. I’ve read other books that do this as well and they often become garbled or indistinguishable from one another. That was not the case here; each character was so well developed that readers can identify who is speaking even without the benefit of dialogue. Liobhan is the saltier of the two siblings and has a thread of impatience and recklessness running through each of her chapters. Brocc is a gentle soul who prefers music to fighting, even though he is adept at it, and his chapters seem almost dreamy at times. Dau has a lot of anger and bitterness in him, and it is clear he has a history he wants to keep hidden or tamped down. Seeing events through each of their eyes makes for an interesting read since each chapter switches from one to another. It gives a nice mix for readers and lets us get to know the characters closely as well as see their growth as people.

The secondary characters were often intriguing. I thought the best one was Mistress Juniper, though Aislinn came in a close second. I kind of want to be a mix of Mistress Juniper and the Aunts from Practical Magic when I grow up. I felt that a few details were left unanswered, such as who Juniper really was, whether Aislinn will get to leave or not, and why exactly Rodan was so monstrous and whether he’ll chill out since events panned out the way they did. I also wanted to know more about the Crow Folk. Speculation from the various characters was all well and good, but I wanted a more definitive answer than I got. In any case, it had an ending that was exciting enough and makes it easier to overlook the few minor quibbles I had with the plot. I am hopeful we will learn more about these things in subsequent books, at least about the Fair Folk and the Crow Folk. 

Overall, a very enjoyable read, perfect for a weekend indulgence or fantasy break.

Priestess of Ishana

Priestess of Ishana by Judith Starkston

I read it as an: ARC, finished as a paperback

Source: from the author, and I bought a copy for my own collection

Length: 453 pp

Publisher: Bronze Age Books

Year: 2018

Tesha is the 15 year old high priestess of the goddess Ishana, a deity of war and love. Her duties and devotion to the goddess are strong and she carries out her role faithfully at the temple, believing she knows her life’s role. Until one day, two shepherds discover the charred remains of a man’s body in a cave, who had been killed by sorcery, a crime punishable by death. When the Great King’s younger brother, Hattu, arrives to Tesha’s city to deliver a great treasure to the temple as a sign of his devotion to Ishana, he is arrested for the murder of the man in the cave. Tesha and her blind sister, Daniti, are convinced that Hattu is innocent, but their father, Pentip, the Grand Votary and High Priest, believes otherwise. Acting against her father, Tesha meticulously searches for the truth that will set Hattu, with whom she shares an inexplicable bond and visions, free of his prison and save him from execution at his own brother’s command.

You guys. YOU GUYS! This novel is Hittite historical fantasy! Let me say that again:

HITTITE. HISTORICAL. FANTASY!

This is exactly the historical fantasy novel you were looking for to round out your 2018 reading! The world building is intricate and painstakingly drawn, which is always pleasing. The pacing has a nice blend of faster action sequences combined with complex (but not convoluted) politics and religious rites. Each character has depth and personality, some of whom you love to hate. I thought Tesha in particular was a complex person, a woman in her own right who had some power as a respected priestess, but who was also a woman in a very different and much earlier society who adhered to some patriarchal rules. It was fascinating to see her carry out her duties as well as her investigation within the scope of the limits her society imposed upon her.

The excellent author’s note at the end gives further insight into both the creation of the novel itself as well as the Hittites. I think a lot of people don’t know about the Hittites at all, or else only what is mentioned about them in the Bible. But their civilization was enormous and they had a ton of influence on the ancient world. They were literally lost to the sands of time and were only relatively recently rediscovered. There is still a lot we can learn about them, and frankly, learning history by way of well written fantasy novels isn’t a bad way to go. I think Judith Starkston has struck on a totally unique niche within the historical fantasy genre, and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with in her next installation in the series!

**A slightly different, probably longer and better version of this review will also be posted at the very awesome book review site Discovering Diamonds. You should go check them out.