The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay
BOOK REVIEW: The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay
ROC (a division of Penguin Publishing), 2004, ISBN 978-0-451-45985-5
The Last Light of the Sun is an exquisite work of historical fantasy, and even if the characters are not real, one has to believe that Guy Gavriel Kay has captured the essence of the last age of the Vikings. Yes, you heard me – the Vikings. Or, as he calls them, the Erlings. Also, the Anglo-Saxons (Anglcyn) and the Celts (Cyngael). Norse, British, and Welsh, if you wish.
Yes, this is a fantasy book. The characters are not historical, although they feel absolutely genuine. The Erlings are rough, warlike, and relentless. They are to be feared, but their own ruthlessness has made them archaic. Their age is waning, even as the age of the Anglcyn appears to be ascendant. However, petty rivalries separate the Anglycn from their neighbors, the Cyngael, and there are great divides even amongst their own factions. Any kind of unity is fragile, easily splintered, and suspect. Although Christianity (the Sun God) has overtaken the land, the pagan world of fairy remains real, especially to the Cyngael. These worlds are all at a turning point in their history.
Kay, in his wisdom, centers his book not on court intrigue, but on well developed characters around whom the story chases. Bern Thorkellson is a young Norseman whose family has fallen on hard times, and a youthful action of defiance puts him on the path to the feared Jormsvik mercenaries. Charismatic King Aeldred is attempting to overcome staggering adversity to bring stability to the Anglycn, even as he is wracked by sudden and devastating fevers. Alun and Dai are young Cyngael princes who undertake an ill-fated cattle raid on their Anglycn neighbors that will change their lives forever. From these beginnings weave a tale in which pits sons against fathers, sets modern theologies against pagan realities, and shows that honor comes in many, and often conflicting, guises.
In this work, few characters are despicable, even though their actions and methods at first may appear barbaric. So, too, are kings portrayed as human and princes as young and capricious. Kay’s female characters are not romanticized, but some of them do show strength of spirit that gives them their own type of power. Fae spirits also play a very important part in this tale, and Kay’s depiction of faeries is fantastic, touching and utterly believable.
Kay weaves these stories freely, not following any hard structure, and the reading benefits from this. He also tends to write in short, well defined sections, rather than long, rambling prose. Because of the ever shifting nature of the story, this convention works well, and allows the narrative to flow from character to character in a seamless, effective telling. It almost feels like the story is being spoken rather than written, and the breaks are pauses for breath. Another very effective device Kay uses is to introduce incidental characters that we see for only a few paragraphs or a couple of pages, giving us indelible glimpses into how the larger story impacts more than just the major characters.
For those who are familiar with Guy Gavriel Kay through his fantasy world of Fionavar or perhaps his more contemporary work, Ysabel, or know him through his work with Christopher Tolkien editing The Silmarillion, should be thrilled by seeing yet another side of Kay’s talent. If you are a fan of historical fantasy, then you must read this book. If you distain historical fantasy, then you must read this book anyway, for the craft of the telling of this compelling story is exceptional. In fact, if I had to recommend one unknown book for an inquiring reader of any genre, I very well may offer The Last Light of the Sun. It’s just that good.
My absolute highest recommendation – read this book! To coin a phrase – you’ll be glad you did.