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Guy Gavriel Kay – The Last Light of the Sun

March 9, 2011

29. The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay (2004)

Length: 500 pages
Genre: Historical Fantasy

Started: 16 February 2011
Finished: 22 February 2011

Where did it come from? Bookmooch.
Why do I have it? Even back when I got this one, GGK was already well established as one of my favorite authors.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 16 August 2008.

Nothing messes up
a good party like a bunch
of Viking raiders.

Summary: The Last Light of the Sun takes place in the same world as Kay’s Sarantium Mosaic and The Lions of Al-Rassan, although far to the North. It’s a world like-but-not-quite Earth, and Last Light sits at a junction that’s part Poetic Edda, part Beowulf, and part Arthurian legend. In this world, the Erling warriors in their longships have been conducting fierce raids on the coasts of the North for time out of mind, but the Anglcyn king has subdued them with a treaty that has held for decades. However, their uneasy peace is shattered by an unexpected nighttime raid on the inland household of one of Cyngael, the fractious principalities to the west of Anglcyn.

Two princes of the Cyngael were present at that raid, and Alun ab Owyn is left in a dark despair after the death of his older brother and the loss of his soul. He rides with Cennion, the high cleric of the Cyngael, to Anglcyn, to warn the King – and his four intelligent but idle children – of the renewed danger. A separate storyline follows Bern Thorkellson, a young Erling whose father was exiled from their island home for murder. His life’s hopes tainted by his father’s crimes, Bern sets off for the mainland, seeking to join an elite group of mercenary fighters… but tensions with the Anglcyn are high, and mercenaries cannot always choose the motivations behind the jobs that they are given.

Review: Guy Gavriel Kay writes like no one else I’ve ever read. He can take a scene that by any rights should be something fairly small – something that in another writer’s hands would hardly register in my brain – and imbue it with such power that it reaches up and grabs you by the heart and the throat and steals your breath away when you are least expecting it. He’s also incredibly adept at building his worlds and setting the scene with a remarkably small amount of description. One of the things I liked best about this book was how vividly it felt like I was in the middle of a Viking encampment or a Welsh farmstead, all without one word about the furniture or the dresses. Guy Gavriel Kay’s writing is a large part of why his books typically take me a while to read. Not that the writing is particularly difficult or dense – although neither is it easy and light – but that it’s got such power that I find myself wanting to take it slowly, to give myself time to roll around in it, to absorb it, to give it space to breathe.

But… there’s a but. While the writing in The Last Light of the Sun was as good as in any of Kay’s other books, the story was not my favorite. It kept me interested, without a doubt, and didn’t drag, but I also never really got particularly invested in it, either. I think it may have been due to the preponderance of characters. I prefer Kay’s books more when they focus on one or a few main POV characters, while Last Light of the Sun had a substantial number of characters that wound up evenly sharing the narration. As a result, the story felt a bit scattered, with not enough time spent with any one character to build a proper emotional connection. Similarly, there were a number of story elements – Cennion’s past, the Viking seer, Kendra’s newfound gift – that didn’t get as much development as they deserved. I still really enjoyed reading it, it just didn’t quite have the resonance and oomph of Tigana or The Lions of Al-Rassan. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I say this every time I review one of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels, but it’s a damn shame more people aren’t reading them too. And not just fans of grown-up fantasy, either, but historical fiction fans as well, since apart from taking place in not-quite-Earth, these books are essentially historical fiction. Last Light of the Sun has more fantasy elements than most of his books (but less than, say, Tigana), but it’s all of the folklore-ish variety – spirit woods with actual spirits in them, mostly. So, the upshot is: Read them! If you’ve got a particular affinity for Vikings, then start with Last Light of the Sun, otherwise I’d recommend starting with Lions of Al-Rassan to get a feel for Kay at his best.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Libri Touches
Really, people, that’s it? Just one? If you’ve reviewed this book, leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: A horse, he came to understand, was missing.

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26 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2011 10:01 am

    Guy Gavriel Kay sounds like an author I would really enjoy. I love fantasy with a historical fiction flare to it. After reading this review and your descriptions of Kay’s writing style I am definitely adding his books to my wish list, this really is a style of book I love. I am so glad I read this review and am looking forward to discovering a new author!

    • March 14, 2011 10:17 am

      dragonflyy – Oh, yay! The more people reading Kay, the merrier!

      I’d actually describe him more as historical fiction with a fantasy flare, instead of the other way around, but regardless, I hope you can pick up his books, and that you love them as much as I do! (If you need suggestions on where to start, I’d say Tigana or The Lions of Al-Rassan.)

  2. March 9, 2011 11:17 am

    you had me at “same world as . . . Lions of Al Rassan”, which is one of my all-time favorite books. I too prefer books that have a smallish quantity of main characters to follow, but I’m happy to make an exception for Guy Gavriel Kay. His Ysabel was a bit of a dissapointment for me, but I’d definately give Last Light of the Sun a shot. I like that it sounds like it’s got some mythical/magical stuff going on.

    Thank you for bringing attention to Guy Gavriel Kay, all us bloggers are always so excited about the new shiny stuff, it’s nice to talk about authors and book that have been around for a while!

    • March 14, 2011 10:20 am

      Redhead – it is the same world as Lions, although the state of things in Al-Rassan and Rhodias and Sarantium are mentioned only in passing; the main story focuses on the British Isles (…or their equivalent. Y’know.)

  3. March 9, 2011 5:03 pm

    I can tell you loved that book, but I’m not sure it’s for me.

    • March 14, 2011 10:21 am

      bermudaonion – I’m always trying to get historical-fiction-but-not-fantasy fans to pick up Kay’s books as a way into the fantasy genre, but as I recall, you’re not much of an HF fan either… and if that’s the case, then yeah, probably not for you.

  4. March 11, 2011 1:53 pm

    I know what you mean about this one. I liked it a lot when I was reading it, but it definitely hasn’t stayed with me in quite the same way. Still, it’s remaining on my shelf, and I completely agree it’s such a shame GGK isn’t more read more widely. He’s so fantastic.

    • March 14, 2011 10:25 am

      Meghan – I especially want to take all everyone I know who’s like “Oh, I don’t read fantasy” and hit them over the head with a copy of one of GGK’s books and force them to read it, since it’s technically fantasy, but not fantasy like I think most people think of it. (Same way people will be all “Time Traveler’s Wife ? I loved it! But no, I don’t read sci-fi…”)

  5. March 11, 2011 6:05 pm

    I have a hit or miss with GGK’s work. I read Ysabel and loved that read, but I tried The Fionavar Tapestry and the first book just did not grab me. However, I am currently reading Tigana and am loving this read. I keep wonder why we do not hear more about GGK, and that thought has become more prevalent with this Tigana.

    Last Light of the Sun sounds good. I must read it at some point in the near future.

    • March 14, 2011 10:27 am

      ibeeeg – The Fionavar Tapestry was Kay’s first book, and I think it’s noticeably less polished than his later works. You might try going back to it after you’ve read his later stuff and try it again… I didn’t love it, but it was interesting to see him working out ideas and styles that he’d use in later books.

  6. March 12, 2011 11:26 am

    Guy Gavriel Kay really is an incredible writer. I must have read Tigana and The Fionavar Tapestry a hundred times when I was in high school. I haven’t read anything since then, but your review makes me want to go back and revisit my old favorites! Thanks!

    • March 14, 2011 10:28 am

      Emily – Lions! Lions! The Lions of Al-Rassan! It’s tied with Tigana as my favorite GGK book, and if you haven’t read it, you absolutely should. (As well as re-reading your old favorites, too.)

      • March 14, 2011 6:34 pm

        I think I’ve read that one, but my brain is drawing a blank. Oh, well, guess I have to re-read it, then! :)

      • March 16, 2011 12:23 pm

        Re-reads of everything for everybody!

  7. March 12, 2011 11:01 pm

    I seriously need to read more by him!!!!

    • March 14, 2011 10:29 am

      Kailana – Yes you do! (Of course, in my opinion so does everybody, including myself!)

  8. March 17, 2011 12:38 pm

    I used to be so hooked on his books that I would buy them on the day of publication, but then it became too hard to wait all those years for the next one. The last one that I read was Ysabel, which I think has a wide appeal, and especially for those who love to read about France. But my favourites are Song for Arbonne and Tigana. ::sigh:: I do recommend Lions too, because its pacing and setting are terrific, but I love Fionavar far more (though it’s harder to recommend that to readers who find the idea of a trilogy off-putting).

    • April 1, 2011 9:34 am

      BiP – I didn’t come to Kay until fairly late, so the only one of his books that has been published since I’ve been a fan was Under Heaven.

  9. Shanra permalink
    March 18, 2011 6:05 am

    You reviewed it! Now we can have two reviews of LLotS on the Blog Search! (Which, really, is ridiculous. It’s not his best book, no, but the lack of reviews is so surprising.) Memory’s having her “Tigana” read-aloud (which, sadly, I can’t participate in because I have Course Books Of Doom, which I’m currently avoiding), but after that maybe we should organise a Kay-week and encourage people to read GGKay books in it sometime later in the year like how Jenny held her DWJ-week?

    • April 1, 2011 9:36 am

      Shanra – I would be in for a GGK week! I still have Ysabel unread on the shelf that could use a review.

    • May 12, 2011 10:04 am

      Yes, yes! Count me in for a GGK week too.

      I’ve only read Under Heaven once, so I would be glad to re-read and review it. It would be an interesting choice for me, because my reaction to it is really similar to how you’ve felt about LLotS – interesting but not a ‘grabber’ like Lions or Tigana or even Arbonne.

  10. March 20, 2011 5:02 pm

    I haven’t read this one yet. I’ve read the Sarantine Mosaic duology and loved it. Currently reading Tigana and still loving GGK! I think I’ve found one of my favorite authors.

    • April 1, 2011 9:37 am

      Terri – Hooray! And hooray for having all of the rest of his books still to read for the first time, too; how exciting!

  11. March 30, 2011 2:54 pm

    I’ve got ‘Sailing to Sarantium’ on my Kindle but haven’t started it yet. I love ‘The Lions of Al-Rassan’ – it’s my favourite of Kay’s books (though I realise I haven’t read that many of them). I do like the characters and the world-building in it (even if it is really Moorish Spain).

    • April 1, 2011 9:40 am

      Ela – My one bit of advice would be to have Lord of Emperors on hand soon after reading Sailing to Sarantium… they’re really two halves of a single story, and I thought the month I waited between reading them was too long. Although that might be easier to have the second book on hand when you’re on a Kindle, eh?

      • April 9, 2011 2:23 pm

        You were so right! I did feel that ‘Sailing to Sarantium’ was incomplete, and was very glad to be able to get ‘Lord of Emperors’ almost as soon as I’d finished the first one.

        I do like Kay’s intelligent women – though Alixana and Valerius are clearly based on Theodora and Justinian – and his strong female characters.

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