An element of the past is often central to fantasy texts, they are set in worlds where characters fight with swords rather than guns and cell phones are more impossible than magic, but the degree of history that slips in shifts a great deal with the author. Canadian writer Guy Gavriel Kay is praised for his fantasy novels and one of the unique elements of these books are the degree to which they are steeped in the history of our world. This is a world building choice that gives Kay’s novels a distinctly different feel to the more traditional fantasy works of Lewis, Tolkien, or Martin. This difference sets Kay’s work apart from much of the contemporary fantasy scene but it is an incredibly effective way to address history in a way that is appealing and accessible to a different kind of reader.
Despite being categorized as a fantasy book, those who are familiar with European history will immediately recognize the setting of Kay’s most recent work – A Brightness Long Ago – as being set in Renaissance Italy. Perhaps most obvious is Seressa whose canal’s and business economy match almost exactly with the vision of Venice that most readers would come to the text with. Even the major event which the book revolves around, the fall of Sarantium, is clearly the Kay’s parallel to the fall of Constantinople. Kay isn’t trying to hide the historical basis for what he is writing about, he leans into the style that he has been using since the publication of A Song for Arbonne in 1992 and even includes what amounts to a works cited at the end of the book. A Brightness Long Ago, like the novels that proceeded it, draw in a reader who already loves history with the joys of trying to match figures and families in the book to their historical equivalents while Kay’s fantasy setting creates the kind of immersive veneer that makes the history compelling in a way that no textbook ever could.
Kay never claims to be writing an accurate history and it allows him to write characters who are entirely a part of their world rather than having the kind of distance that historical writing requires. Books that seek to be factual and educational are written with a kind of distance, they describe the beliefs of the Ancient Greeks without really believing in the Greek pantheon and come with the implication of misplaced faith that comes with describing what is now a long dead religion. Even historical fiction novels are written with a kind of awareness of the reader, the characters do really believe in the world their story takes place in, but the books often feel like the are turned towards a voyeuristic reader who wants to look back on history. By setting his novels in a fantasy world Kay removes that pressure, he writes about Christianity or Islam without really writing about those faiths and it makes the character’s faith feel more real because they simply run in parallel with the religion’s the reader knows. History is close enough to Kay’s fantasy that it is recognizable but not so close that it entirely breaks the immersion of the world, rather it makes the world feel deeper and more complex with what the reader brings to the story.
The immersive fantasy experience actually brings the reader closer to what they are reading than a pure history would. There are many people who would never pick up a book about the minor conflicts of city states in the Italian Renaissance but will find the Folco vs Monticola conflict in A Brightness Long Ago compelling. Kay’s fantasy captures the best aspects of history, the intrigues and the power and the devastating power of a single event like the fall of Constantinople without getting caught up in the details of dates, geographies and armies that people often find off putting about history. However, it is a not a patronizing oversimplification that simply assumes people are too stupid to understand history, Kay’s world is masterfully constructed around the historical fact so that history buffs are also caught up in the push towards the climatic fall of Sarantium that their history knowledge told them was inevitable from the beginning of the novel. It is hard for a modern reader to feel the shock waves that the fall of Constantinople sent through Europe but A Brightness Long Ago places them in a world that hasn’t felt that shock wave yet and then lets them feel it happen. This is a kind of closeness that isn’t possible with history but seems inescapable when reading Kay’s work.
A Brightness Long Ago is the most recent of Kay’s novel’s and is perhaps the ideal book to use for this analysis because it is set in a fantasy of Europe with its own version of Christianity, but Kay’s other works carry the same historical weight. The (unfortunately) less recognizable histories of the Near and Far East are present in his earlier novels and immerse the reader in a kind of history they may not be nearly as familiar with. The historical parallels are just as close in these books, but it is certainly a different kind of immersive atmosphere is certainly different and might offer an even more valuable experience than reading the easily identifiable history of Europe. A Brightness Long Ago is a gateway into history, but it will hopefully also be a gateway into Kay’s previous books for new readers to expand their historical horizons beyond what a single story can contain.