THE LAST LIGHT OF THE SUN
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Several authors have managed to carve out a niche for themselves and prosper. Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay has done so by creating a world (or series of worlds) which closely mirror the Medieval and Renaissance history of our own world, thereby allowing him to take liberties which would be out of place in a straight historical novel, but which add to the strength of his work. The most recent entry in this niche is effective and successful The Last Light of the Sun.
The setting for The Last Light of the Sun, is, of course, the nascent England of King Alfred, here renamed Aeldred. Interestingly, Kay uses one of the stories of Alfred from Asser’s Vita Alfredi in the story, but then suborns it with his own digressions from the main tale. In the Vita, Asser told the tale of Alfred burning cakes while living as a fugitive in Athelney. Asser uses the tale to point out how the battles of the great do not generally impinge on the daily existence of the peasantry. In The Last Light of the Sun, however, Kay goes from this story of Aeldred to showing in emotionally written digressions how the deeds of Aeldred and the Jormsvik invaders do change the course of the peasantry’s lives for good or evil.
With all the characters, Anglcyn, Erling, and Cyngael whose stories are told, it is, at times, difficult to focus on the primary story woven throughout, the estranged relationship between the Erling exile Thorkell Einarson and his son, Bern Thorkellson. This estrangement is made more poignant by the fact that although the characters share multiple scenes in the novel, they hardly actually speak to each other. Nevertheless, their effect on each other, and on the book as a whole, is more powerful than anything said or done by all the other characters combined.Even as Thorkell and Bern form the backbone of the novel, Kay’s other characters are interesting, whether the older Brynn ap Hywll against whom the Erlings seek vengeance for a twenty-five year old defeat, the children of King Aeldred, each of whom have their own very different, and engaging, personalities and tribulations, or the curious Aeldred and Ceinion, who are trying to rebuild the lost civilization which once spanned their world. Any one of these characters could easily have carried the book on their own and add that much more as support characters to the real heroes.
Perhaps the weakest points of The Last Light of the Sun occur when Kay strays furthest from his historical antecedents and introduces the realm of the faeries into his setting. This other world plays an important part in the story, in both the motivations of characters and in the manner in which they achieve their goals, however Kay's portrayal of this world, whether in the form of the faeries or the concept of the Spirit Wood, is jarring when compared to the more historically grounded portions of the text.
As with Kay's earlier semi-historical novels, such as The Lions of al Rassan or the "Sarantine Mosaic," The Last Light of the Sun is a well-researched, entertaining novel about a world which never was, but (almost) could have been. Rather than writing a simple adventure, Kay provides the reader with an intelligent story with much more to think about than the run of the mill fantasy novel.
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