Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Last Light of the Sun is not one of his better books. In his better books, he evokes with seeming effortlessness deep emotion (as in Tigana) or the epic sweep of history (as in Lord of Emperors). In his worse books, he’s too obviously trying really hard to evoke deep emotion (as in Lions of Al-Rassan) or that epic sweep (as here).
The setting for this tale is a thinly fictionalized version of England, Ireland, and the Viking North. Some people are bothered by the thin veneer of fiction on otherwise straight-up European history, but I’m fine with it — it lets Kay tell basically historical stories without the ending being automatically known, and without the characters all being overshadowed by inescapably significant names. I’m not so fine, though, with how densely he peppers this tale with Great Men; every other character is one of Kay’s super-genius, greater-than-great Heroes For The Ages. What works fine for a character or two grows ridiculous when spread to an entire cast.
Even worse are the fucking homilies. Kay apparently doesn’t trust the reader to understand anything they read, so at frequent points throughout the book, he spells out the meaning explicitly, directly, and pretentiously. Consider these three paragraphs from a span of ten pages:
In all of us, fear and memory interweave in complex, changing ways. Sometimes it is the thing unseen that will linger and appall long afterwards. Sliding into dreams from the blurred borders of awareness, or emerging, perhaps, when we stand alone, at first waking, at the fence of a farmyard or the perimeter of an encampment in that misty hour when the idea of morning is not quite incarnate in the east. Or it can assail us like a blow in the bright shimmer of a crowded market at midday. We do not ever move entirely beyond what has brought us mortal terror.
It is in the nature of things that when we judge actions to be memorably courageous, they are invariably those that have an impact that resonates: saving other lives at great risk, winning a battle, losing one’s life in a valiant attempt to do one or the other. A death of that sort can lead to songs and memories at least as much — sometimes more — than a triumph. We celebrate our losses, knowing how they are woven into the gift of our being here.
And so a difficult truth about human courage was played out among those trees. A truth we resist for what it suggests about our lives. But sometimes the most gallant actions, those requiring a summoning of all our will, access to bravery beyond easy understanding or description... have no consequence that matters. They leave no ripples upon the surface of succeeding events, cause nothing, achieve nothing. Are trivial, marginal. This can be hard to accept.
What the fuck is that? I feel like I should be stroking my goatee and murmuring, “That’s really deep, man.” Or, considering that I’m reading a book of fiction and not a collection of homilies, “Show, don’t tell!” Kay could easily show how events from the past can cause surprises in the present, how great tragedy can be celebrated, how courageous actions can go unrewarded but be no less courageous for that. He’s done so, even, in previous books. But here, he seems content to just tell us these things up front, so he doesn’t have to bother writing them out in a slightly less obvious way.
I don’t know whether Kay phoned this book in, but it sure reads like he did. It’s safe to say that it’ll leave no ripples upon the surface of succeeding events, cause nothing, achieve nothing. It’s trivial, marginal. And if you’ve enjoyed Kay’s other books, you’re not going to accept my word for it, but are going to insist on reading it yourself. Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.