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The Last Light of the Sun, Guy Gavriel Kay, Viking, 2004, 501 pp.
Beautiful, moving, and written with incredible assurance, The Last Light of the Sun demonstrates once again that Kay can describe both the heights and depths of human experience with equal adeptness. The publication of this book in 2004 marks 20 years since Kay's debut, The Summer Tree, the first volume of the Fionavar Tapestry, in 1984. It's been a remarkable career, and his prose only gets better, and his grasp of human nature only more abundant. The Last Light of the Sun differs somewhat from his earlier books, in that the scope seems smaller; this seems appropriate for the historical analog that Kay is using this time around, the world of the Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, and Celts. No glittering cities like Sarantium (Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors), no warring nations (A Song for Arbonne). This is the world of the Norse sagas, with raids and pillaging and only the beginnings of coherent nations in the area. It's a productive time period to play in.
The Erlings are a people dedicated to their warlike god, Ingavin, and also to their long-held tradition of raiding the Angclyn and the Cyngael on the island to the west. The book begins with a young Erling named Bern who has stolen a horse from his local chief on the island of Rabady; since the chief is dead and the horse is required for funeral rites that will make his soul rest easy, the local warriors are keen to find Bern. Bern is trying to escape a life of servitude that has been his lot since his father was exiled for murder. Meanwhile, in the Cyngael lands, a raiding party of young Cyngael princes find out that they have targeted the farm of a famous Cyngael warrior named Brynn; the cleric Ceinion saves them from embarrassment and they becomes guests of Brynn. Later that night, Brynn's farmstead is attacked by Erlings who want revenge for the death of a famous Erling warrior killed by Brynn years ago. In the aftermath of the attack, an Erling named Thorkell switches to the Cyngael side; Thorkell is Bern's father, now adrift in the world and looking for purpose. Part 1 of the book ends with Bern himself. He has escaped from his home island and joins the infamous Jormsvik mercenaries.
Part 2 of the book is mainly concerned with events in the Angclyn lands: King Aeldred has been furiously nation-building, trying to knit together enough of a prosperous country and a military response capability to end the Erling attacks once and for all. Bern, as a mercenary, is part of one such attack, and due to bad information (perhaps deliberately so), a large troop of his colleagues is wiped out. He encounters his father twice, and their relationship is complicated by the fact that his father's exile ruined his life and by the fact that they are now on opposing sides. Aeldred and his children figure greatly in this part of the story, as well as the despicable Erling who may have misled the mercenaries to get them to do a certain mission. Part 2 ends with the remaining members of the Erling force, despite everything, on their way to once again attack Brynn. All forces converge, and the story comes to a surprising conclusion. Kay supplies a neat twist on the sagas and historical tales that have influenced the book.
The Last Light of the Sun has a large cast of characters, and they are generally identifiable by their origins. The Erlings are fierce and warlike, the Cyngael are artistic and sorrowful, and so forth. Interestingly, most of the characters who matter to the story face dilemmas that put this essentialism to question in one way or another. Bern is a son of a famous Erling raider, and as such he really should be blood-thirsty, unable to settle down, and mainly concerned with dying in battle. He might be good at fighting -- he does get into Jormsvik -- but is that really what suits him? The Thorkell-Bern father-son story is the clearest example of how this plays out in the book, especially in the way that Thorkell, a life-long raider who didn't last long on Rabady when he tried to live a quiet life, is forced to examine his capacity to change even so late in life. King Aeldred's children face the same challenges, albeit in a somewhat different sense; their father is an intimidating man and they are trying to live up his standards, rather than grow out of the limitations of their background.
Kay continues his practice, used extensively in the two books of the Sarantine Mosaic, of using peripheral characters to emphasize that life goes on all around the central story. For example, in The Last Light of the Sun we find out about a young milkmaid whose sister is killed by passing raiders, a miller who is asked by the king to burn the bodies of Erling raiders, and Bern's mother Frigga who has survived much tumult at the hands of the men in her life. This certainly fleshes out the world, but it can be distracting to those who fixate on what happens next in the main story. Personally I liked some of Kay's minor characters, such as a young girl named Anrid who helps Bern escape and later uses that to gain political power for herself or the new Rabady chief named Sturla One-Hand who works with Anrid in unexpected ways.
The Cyngael are one of the three main groups of people in The Last Light of the Sun, and I should point out that Kay used some of the same Celtic influences in his debut, the Fionavar Tapestry. That trilogy was high fantasy, complete with Dark Lord, extensive magic, quests, and such. Kay has developed his own distinct sensibility in the intervening years, and I find his historically-based approach much more appealing.
Kay has always been a strong story-teller, and The Last Light of the Sun is more evidence of that fact. I'm keen to find out where his curiosity and gift for narrative lead him next.
Last modified: March 25, 2004
Copyright © 2000-2004 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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