Visions of Paradise

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Last Light of the Sun

One of my favorite storytellers is Guy Gavriel Kay who writes historical fantasies disguised as alternate history. While I have not read all his novels to date, of those I have read the finest is The Last Light of the Sun.

This novel is the story of Viking raids against the English coast during the early middle ages. Its focus alternates between three groups:

• the Vikings themselves as we watch two youngsters grow up, including an orphan who escapes servitude by stealing the dead king’s horse, which was intended to be buried with him, and joining a mercenary troop on the mainland

• the Welsh people, particularly the sons of a regional prince, and their dealings with the most influential Welsh leader who twenty-five years earlier killed an infamous Viking marauder

• the Anglo-Saxon king who has unified his people and strengthened them against both the Vikings and Welsh

The plot is fairly complex, starting with a cattle raid by the two Welsh prince’s sons on the home of the Welsh leader, a raid destined to fail since they had no idea whose property they had invaded. They are rescued by a Catholic cleric who realizes their intent as well as their inevitable fate, so he brings them to the leader as his companions on his tour of the region.

The ensuing celebration at the estate is interrupted by a Viking raid, which sets off a series of events culminating in a more extensive raid against the Welsh leader a short period later.

These events might sound like fairly simplistic machinations of an action adventure, but they are not the focus of this book at all. Last Light is epic in scope in its examination of the changes in the balance of power between the marauding Vikings and the agricultural Anglo-Saxons. This was an important era in European history, since fear of invaders was the foundation of the feudal system, and once that fear ebbed, European civilization resumed the evolution which had crashed following the fall of the Roman Empire.

What made this book successful was that the very engaging plot involved equally-engaging people, with whom it was easy to relate and whose fates really mattered. Many of the important characters are youngsters, including the children of both the Welsh and Anglo-Saxon leaders, whose participation in the novel is definitely a coming of age.

I described Last Light as a historical fantasy, because it also involves the historical struggle between the ancient Celtic religion and the imposed Christianity. Celtic supernatural entities living in the feared “god woods” are an important factor in the novel’s climactic race to protect the Celtic leader against the Vikings.

I also mentioned that Kay disguised his fiction as alternate history. That was because nowhere in the novel does he mention Anglo-Saxons, Welsh, or Vikings. Instead the novel is concerned with Anglcyns, Cyngaels, and Erlings. The cleric is a follower of Jad. The ancient empire which fell centuries ago was based in Rhodia. There is mention of a mainland empire by a ruler whose name is suspiciously like Charlemagne.

Why did Kay take this approach, when it seemed unnecessary to what was a strong historical fantasy already? Although my knowledge of this era is not deep, I suspect that taking the alternate historical approach enabled Kay to alter events as he wished, without either arousing historians or angering readers expecting faithful adaptions of true events. Thus, it laid the emphasis on the story itself rather than on questions of authenticity.

Whatever his reason, he has written a gripping novel which I recommend highly to fans of both historical fiction and historical fantasy, or just good story-telling. This is my favorite book of the year so far.

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