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“Last Light of the Sun” by Guy Gavriel Kay


Kay’s next book was again in the same alternate-Earth as “The Lions of Al-Rassan” and “The Sarantine Mosaic”, this time set at the end of the Dark Ages as the fictional equivalent of King Alfred the Great is building up what would one day become the nation of England and fighting off Viking attacks.

The novel initially follows two separate narrative strands – in one Alun ap Owyn, a young Cyngael (this world’s equivalent of Welsh) prince witnesses the death of his brother in an Erling (Viking) raid, then he encounters magical spirits in the forest before setting off on a journey to the court of King Aeldred (Alfred). The second strand follows Bern Thorkellson, a young Erling warrior who is forced to flee from his home after stealing a horse in an attempted act of vengeance. Forced to make his own way in the world he attempts to become an Erlings raider, trying to join up with a respected mercenary company. As the novel progresses the two strands come together as the Erlings attempt an invasion of the Anglcyn (English) Kingdom, while Alun seeks vengeance for his slain brother and Bern tries to find his exiled father.

One of the unusual narrative features of this novel is the number of brief side-stories told during it. Many times when a new character is introduced, even for a brief cameo, Kay will break off the main narrative to chart the course of their future life, telling brief tales of the lives of the peasants and soldiers that the main characters meet along the way. It is in an interesting attempt at showing the lives of the ordinary people in a medieval world whose concerns may be less exciting than the nobles and warriors that make up the main cast, but who are ultimately just as important in their own world. While this feature does add some extra depth to the story, it does have the disadvantage that it distracts from the main plot and slows down the pace of the main narrative.

As usual with Kay the quality of the writing and characterisation is strong, the main characters are complex and well-developed characters with Aeldred being particularly interesting. The Dark Ages is a period often ignored as a source for historical fantasy in favour of the medieval period or Celtic influences so it is interesting to see a novel based around a fantasy equivalent of King Alfred’s court. The world building is convincingly detailed and manages to show quite a lot of the Anglcyn and Erling cultures. Although the Erlings may be the antagonists in the novel, Kay makes sure that the Erling characters such as Bern are fully developed and have understandable motivations for their warlike behaviour.

The story is interesting without being one of Kay’s best. The first part of the book introduces the characters and setting and manages to include a few strong dramatic sequences as well, showing the Erling raid on the Cyngaels and Bern’s flight from his home. The middle part of the book focuses on the Erling invasion of Anglcyn in what is the most interesting part of the book. Unfortunately, the end of the book, as the main characters attempt to head off a follow-up Erling raid on Cyngael is possibly a bit weaker as the plotting does start to feel excessively contrived and based on unlikely coincidences and the attempts to include some minor fantastical elements in the form of the spirits of the forest do feel a bit like a gratuitous attempt to push this firmly into the fantasy genre, the fantastical elements don’t really add anything to the novel.

In summary, this is another entertaining, well-written book. However, despite the interesting setting the plot (although perfectly adequate) never really manages to become as compelling as the plot in Kay’s earlier novels, such as Tigana or A Song for Arbonne. This is a good book, but not Kay’s best.

Rating : 7.5 / 10

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