What do you remember of 15th Century Italian history? Guelphs and Ghibellines ring a bell? The petty wars between Florence, Milan and Genoa? Yeah, me neither.
Still, in case you ever go there – in case you ever travel by train among the hill towns of Umbria and Tuscany, see them perched on defensible crests with the afternoon sun suffusing their old stones with a rosy glow – you could do worse than have a copy of Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Brightness Long Ago in your lap or on your laptop. You won’t know a thing more about the Guelphs and Ghibellines or the specifics of city-state feuds, but you will be able to populate the landscape with Kay’s fictional mercenary armies moving between them, and picture his 15th Century characters living their lives and adventures behind those old stone walls.
There is Danio Cerra, the educated son of a Seressan tailor, who finds himself thrown in with the great and near great of his generation; Adria and Jelena, two women searching for ways to survive and thrive beyond the cultural strictures imposed on their sex; Folco Cino d’Acorsi and Teobaldo Monticola di Remigio, lords of their own minor cities and war chiefs of mercenary soldiers renting themselves out to the interests of the major city-states, who are also bitter rivals fighting a life-long feud. Whose battleground was once the stretches of placid landscape you see from the window of your train, from which rise those ancient towns.
The historical particulars may be fictional, but Kay does his research thoroughly and tells a tale steeped in a very real cultural reality. Kay is always a delight to read. His metaphors soar with lyricism, so that when he describes Danio’s sense of loss, he says so much more than, “He missed her.” He tells us,
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. I dream of her some nights, still, but there is nothing to give weight or value to that, it is only me, and what I want to be true. It is only longing.
And we immediately remember a longing of our own.
Guy Gavriel Kay has written my favorite alternate universe histories, stories set in a world very like ours and with a similar history, but not constrained by the histories we read in school. Instead they present us with worlds that come from the imagination, so that we see, to paraphrase Ursula K. LeGuin, people who never existed in a time and place that never was, saying words never spoken, and insisting that yes, that’s the truth.