This page contains reviews from the following:
- Emerald City
- Challenging Destiny
- The Washington Post
- The Toronto Star
- The Edmonton Journal
- The Quebec Sun (in French)
- Le Devoir (in French)
Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau
Review by Cheryl Morgan for her online magazine Emerald City. Reproduced with kind permission.
The question I was most often asked by people who knew I had a review copy of the new Guy Gavriel Kay novel, The Last Light of the Sun, was how the book related to Kay’s other work. Was it a sequel to any previous book? Was it a standalone or the first part of a new series? I am happy to say that it is a standalone book: there will be no anxious waiting for a resolution. (Which does not, of course, rule out sequels, but you won’t feel an obvious need for them beyond just wanting to meet the characters again.) As to the other matter, it is indeed set in Kay’s usual alternate history world. Early on we meet a character from Al-Rassan, and there is frequent mention of the Sarantine Empire, but all of the action takes place well away from these regions. Said action is set in the far North-West in the lands of the Erlings, the Anglcyn and the Cyngael.
What does that translate to in our world? The Erlings are composite Scandinavians. I’ll leave it to my readers from those parts to tell me what they think of the portrayal but, as you might guess, they are a violent lot, prone to drinking, raping and spreading their enemies’ lungs over their backs in ceremonial salute to their dark, one-eyed raven-god. The Anglcyn are related barbarians who are taking a stab at being civilized under the leadership of their brilliant and intellectual king, Aeldred (who can do most things but is hopeless with cakes). And the Cyngael, well, Kay tells me that he was aiming for a pan-Celtic feel. So they have the name “gael”, but their names are Cymric and their passion for poetry (unfortunately often at the expense of military training) marks them out. A country with three feuding provinces? The Cyngael are Welsh.
I am too old, Ceinon thought again. He was remembering – so vividly – the father as a young man, equally reckless, even more impulsive. And now that man was an aging prince, and his son was about to find his own end trying to go through the untracked woods carrying a warning all the long way home. A desperate, glorious folly. The way of the Cyngael.
Fortunately rugby has not yet been invented (the national sport is still cattle-rustling, or where cattle can’t be had sheep-rustling) so the bloody Anglcyn can’t beat us at it. But, because they spend way too much time writing poetry, playing word games and strumming their harps, the Cyngael tend to get beaten up on by all of the other barbarians around. Yet, in true Welsh rugby tradition, there was one glorious moment, one great triumph, the day when Brynn ap Hywll killed the great Erling champion, Siggur Volganson, and took his famous sword.
That, of course, was many years ago. Brynn is now an old man, and young blades such as Dai and Alun ab Owyn seek to taunt him by stealing his cattle. But Volganson’s descendants have not forgotten. Blood feud is by no means a solely Celtic practice. Only one man from Volganson’s personal war band is still active, but Red Thorkell is missing, exiled from his home for a drunken killing. His son, Bern, is now a pauper and his only chance at a successful life is to sign on with the famous dragon-prowed ships and go a-raiding. For these men, and some of their women too, life is about to get busy.
The doorways of our lives take many shapes, and arrivals that change us are not always announced by thunderous pounding or horns at the gates. We may be walking a known laneway, at prayer in a familiar chapel, entering a new one and simply looking up, or we may be deep in quiet talk late of a summer’s night, and a door will open behind us.
There are a few strange things about the book. Perhaps the oddest is the newspaper review whose author mis-read “dragon-prowed” as “dragon-powered”. Kay noted this in his signing tour journal and is dining out on amusing stories of fire-breathing propulsion methods. I intend to do the same if I can find an audience that Kay hasn’t got to first.
More relevantly, the main villain of the book, a descendant of Volganson called Ivarr Ragnarson, is an albino. For most fantasy readers (and writers) the thought of an albino Viking nobleman immediately brings to mind the Prince of Melnibone. Kay was bemused when I asked him about this. He ruefully accepted my suggestion that he might be the only fantasy writer around who hasn’t actually read any Elric stories. Ah well, you can’t read everything. And it doesn’t seem to have done Kay any harm because the rest of what is strange about the book is in the “wonderfully strange” category.
Then, as the music grew louder, approaching, Alun ab Owyn saw what was passing by him, walking and riding on the surface of the water, in bright procession, the light a shimmering, around them and in them. And everything about that night and the world changed then, was silvered, because they were fairies, and he could see them.
Kay doesn’t do a lot of magic in his more recent books, but when he does do it he always does it well. He comes very close to Rob Holdstock in capturing the spirit of Celtic magic. That’s pretty darn special for a Canadian.
However, it would be a mistake to think that The Last Light of the Sun is a high fantasy novel. It is certainly a fairy story, in fine Celtic tradition, it even has a magic sword, but it is not mythic fantasy. Like Kay’s other work, it is historical fiction in an alternate world with a little magic in it. The bulk of the book is about people (Kay’s characters are wonderful) and about a developing society. Ostensibly the book’s title refers to the fact that the sun sets upon the lands of the Cyngael, but it also refers to the sun setting on a whole lifestyle. The Anglcyn are already changing under the wise leadership of Aeldred. For Thorkell and Bern, their raiding lifestyle is gradually being replaced by settlement and farming. Dai and Alun might be young and foolish, but Ceinon, the Cyngael chief cleric, knows only too well that a society that remains obsessed with feuding and cattle raiding will soon fall victim to the imperial ambitions of their Anglcyn neighbors.
That time, however, is yet to come. The time of the book is sunset. And as the last light of the sun falls upon Cyngael, Anglcyn and Erling alike there is yet magic in the world, and it still has power to affect the affairs of men. That power is strongest in the green hills and vales where the fair folk still make their home. The land of their own chosen people.
He thought about this, didn’t even want to guess how old she was. She spoke Cyngael the way his grandfather had.
He said it: “You speak my language so beautifully. What does your own sound like?”
She looked surprised for a moment, then amused, the hair flashing it. “But this is my own tongue. How do you think your people l
The language of the fairies should, of necessity, be a language of poetry and song. Naturally it lives on in its homeland, but with this book Guy Gavriel Kay has shown that the spirit of that language has permeated even the rough Anglcyn tongue, and geographically as far as Canada. The Last Light of the Sun is a book that any Welsh bard would be proud to have written. Indeed, it is a book that anyone would be proud to have written.
Os treisiodd y gelyn fy ngwlad tan ei droed,
Mae hen iaith y Cymry mor fyw ag erioed.
Ni luddiwyd yr awen gan erchyll law brad,
Na thelyn berseiniol fy ngwlad. Welsh National Anthem (verse 3)