The Last Light of the Sun

The Last Light of the Sun
Guy Gavriel Kay

I should begin at the end and say right now that I enjoyed and recommend Kay’s tale of Vikings, Welshmen, and Anglo-Saxons. I want to get that out of the way now, because I have an inkling that the following commentary will range far and wide, and perhaps seem overly critical of what is quality fantasy. I’m late to the party, as I often am, but I can now finally say that I’ve dipped a toe into one of fantasy’s best bodies of work and read some Guy Gavriel. I’m glad I finally did, as I have heard many times that he is one of our current masters of the genre. Kay does, however, seem a bit like an archetype for quality fantasy, as such he is going to become a guinea pig for the following thought experiments.

The ideas I have been kicking around since finishing the book are a combination of two recent conversations. The first, here, was the spontaneous State of the Genre discussion that Jose and I conducted last week. My initial comments were triggered in part by finishing Last Light that morning and centered around the dour gravity of so much fantasy. The other was a recent David Brin article, rehashing a long-running commentary of his that divides fantasy and science fiction not by swords and laser guns, but by the author’s attitude toward change and progress. Follow-ups delve further into why people would be so eager to experience and defend a time that involved such wonderful relics as serfdom, pestilence, infant mortality, body odor, and hunks of meat not seasoned with dry rub and barbecue sauce.

I knew from the start that I was in for a very serious book. Within three pages, the reader learns that the Viking men smell like sweat, mead and bear fat. The reader also finds out that someone has stolen a valuable horse, but that the village is on a very small, comparatively inaccessible island. Neither of these revelations comes with even a hint of amusement, despite ample opportunity to mock. I finally chuckled lightly at page 181, but that was the only mirth to be had in the entire book. Not everyone needs to be a comedian, and not everything needs to have a wry, ironic detachment, but still, why so glum, Guy? Why the long face? I realize that life wasn’t great for these people, what with dysentery, Viking raiders, mud hovels, and all, but surely people laughed once in awhile?

I suspect that the tone is a result of the author wanting to say something meaningful in his book and wanting to be taken seriously by readers and critics outside the genre. Kay is hardly alone in this, and I don’t condemn him for it, especially the first. The truly excellent among us are always striving to be better, to create something lasting no matter the medium, so using a book about Vikings and fairies to plumb the depths of human emotion is perfectly acceptable. It may not, however, be quite what I’m looking for in a book, nor do I think it is the reason why people read genre fiction in the first place. Many of us, though I can’t speak for all, read SFF to have our minds blown by something awesome. I’ll go read a Booker Prize winner to level up my humanity and compassion stats. Profound thoughts are a plus, but to me they are the maraschino cherry on top of the ice cream sundae of wild and crazy hijinks. Still, I refuse to dock points for authors trying to do more. I may poke fun at them, though.

This segues semi-gracefully into Brin’s question. I have already suggested that one reason for the somber tone of the book is the nature of life in the period Kay portrays. In spite of this, Last Light is clearly fantasy by Brin’s definition. Change is coming to all of the people in question, both technological and societal. Power is slowly concentrating in the hands of a few wise (or just ruthless) rulers, native religions are succumbing to the Christianity stand-in, the Anglycyns (English) are figuring out ways to remove the Vinmark (Viking) threat permanently, and the “Vikings” are in turn slowly leaving the raiding life behind. Most poignant, Humanity is slowly taming the wild forests and pushing out Faery. Mad props, as it were, to Kay for confronting Change head on, as so much fantasy assumes a static society and goes on its merry way. Like Tolkien, however, a whiff of sadness lingers everywhere, as the characters quietly lament the passing of the old way of life. Things are getting better for all, with education, safety, and health on the up and up, so why the nostalgia? Kay is basically writing an elegy to dysentery.

Two explanations present themselves to me. The first, the simplest and least interesting to talk about, is our own wish fulfillment. The misty past lends itself more to magic, which I’m sure many of us wish we could wield. Magic, for me at least, is all the more romantic and enticing if it is long ago; much moreso than wizards walking through modern day Cleveland. The second, and much more interesting idea, is what seems to be a natural human yearning for the feudal state. This was discussed at length in the comments following Brin’s article and is a vaguely disquieting concept. (I have no background in this sort of thing and make no claims to accuracy, but it is something to ponder.) I can’t explain why we rabid defenders of democracy and freedom seem drawn to this sort of thing, but it’s hard to escape the allure of idealized feudal life.

This is not limited to books. Consider the recent insanity directed towards the British royal wedding. Why on earth should people in the US care? We fought a rather famous war to escape the British royals. For the same reason, why go to Renaissance Fairs or join the SCA? I’m not sure what it says about us that epic fantasy is currently far more popular than its science fiction cousin. I can’t deny the same appeal, though I couldn’t have cared less about weddings. On a trip through Vietnam, we visited the pre-colonial capital in Hue. Standing in the throne room, I felt the allure of the feudal past. Even though the throne was just an uncomfortable looking wooden chair, I was in awe that a king had once sat in it. Then I shook myself and wondered what I was mooning about.

It is time to bring things back from the dizzying precipice of Greater Meaning and return to the book. Last Light is good fantasy. There are no epic quests, no destinies or prophecies, and no Dark Lords taking over the world. Instead, there are a few groups of people, with whom we hold varying levels of sympathy, pursuing their own incompatible ends. There is one truly bad guy, one or maybe two good guys, and everyone else placed somewhere along the black to white spectrum. It is all rather like real life, if a bit lacking in fun. I plan on reading more of Kay’s books when the fantasy urge hits me again, as Last Light is one of the best I’ve read recently.

Rating: Classic British matches with a bunch of old guys talking about how everything was better back when you could hoof long balls down the field and break people’s legs on tackles. (I may have used this example before, so we’ll call it a sequel and be content.)

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2 thoughts on “The Last Light of the Sun

  1. A most thoughtful review. I haven’t read any Guy Gavriel Kay, and so find myself woefully inadequate to comment on his body of work in general, or this book in particular. But Pep’s review brings up a couple of things I’d like to explore further.
    Magic–the fantasy version, not Aleister Crowley’s “magick” or the high ritual magic wherein the magician/celebrant summons up a spirit/demon/internalized psychic (non)-entity–fits so well in the misty past. Not too long ago, I reviewed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for this quality family feature (and did so in rather gushing terms, confessing even to a slight infatuation with the lovely Susannah Clarke, the author). This idea is an important plot device in Jonathan Strange. At the book’s beginning, the York Society of Magicians no longer “does” magic; rather, its members present learned papers on various aspects of magic as it WAS practiced in the aforesaid misty past, together with lots of footnotes and scholarly discussion afterwards. It’s all SO British–shades of an Oxford/Cambridge seminar! Things don’t stay that way–the sly Mr. Norrell is a rogue who actually does magic and who manages to humiliate the York Society into silence.
    Several years ago, I read a book entitled “The Great Year,” by Nicholas Campion. He takes as his hypothesis the idea of a belief, held by almost all cultures of the world, in a primeval Golden Age of human innocence and goodness, as well as in a future New Age of human perfection. The problem is that we’re all stuck in a present in which there is neither universal innocence and good; nor universal human perfection. We’re all jerks! But this misty past in which there was unalloyed innocence and goodness is an ideal environment for Faerie and magic. The vision we have of the glittering high middle ages, with castles, knights in shining armor, chivalry, fair maidens, kings on their thrones, queens who knew their place, all presents a ready-made environment on which to superimpose this Golden Age of innocence. This, even though anyone who’s read Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror” realizes the Middle Ages were a time of constant violence, and as Pep says, “serfdom, pestilence, infant mortality, body odor, and hunks of meat not seasoned with dry rub and barbecue sauce.” But we don’t want to be bothered by those facts. So we lament the passing of this time, when “progress” was accompanied by the loss of magic and the magical world view.
    I’m not sure if there’s a natural human yearning for the “feudal state,” with its rigid class stratification (although perhaps we all imagine ourselves as nobility–even though that meant we would be constantly at war with each other!), serfdom (the vast majority of us would be, both in theory and fact, slaves, tied to a puny piece of land that barely provided enough to sustain life in the rare years where the elements made that possible), and the earlier mentioned constant violence. There is a yearning for a Golden Age of innocence, and somehow the myth of the Middle Ages has attached itself to this yearning, like a barnacle on a garbage scow.
    If fantasy takes us back to the Golden Age–even as it’s passing away as in LOTR and a lot of other epic fantasy works as well, then perhaps sci-fi transports us to a future where humanity is approaching perfection, even if it’s only related to technology: Faster than light travel, weapons of incredible power, Jedi knight powers of mind control and levitation–not unlike the magic of the Golden Age (I remember a Star Trek episode in which Bones–the doc–learned, albeit for a brief moment, the secrets of brain transplantation from an advanced civilization: Even feats of medical magic were within our grasp). Humanity’s asymptotic quest for perfection best showcases itself in technology, because we understand amazing technology, even if we all can’t describe exactly what happens. Who can explain exactly how FM radio waves transmit my favorite Led Zeppelin tune from K-Bear to my stereo? Or how CDs store music and permit me to retrieve that music with incredible fidelity, just by popping a silver disk into a player? Or how the various filters, tone generators, envelope modifiers, etc., let me play Van Halen’s “Jump” on my own synthesizer? I don’t understand any of this stuff, only that I can experience it. This would be magic to a citizen of the Middle Ages–magic enough to get me hauled before the Inquisition and likely tortured for my music in an effort to get me to confess it’s all evidence of the pestiferous stench of Satan.
    The problem is that we’re all stuck in the present, like a fly in amber. We cannot retrieve the misty past; we cannot accelerate the approach of the future. We can never escape the present, except in fantasy and sci-fi. That may be the strongest evidence for the continuing viability and indispensability of both genres.
    I invite your thoughts!

  2. I think that some of what you say is better put than how I originally phrased it. The looking back/looking ahead phenomenon is very much with us; where Brin makes his distinction is in the focus of the book. Fantasy looks back, SF looks forward. Bad fantasy falls prey to the Golden Age stuff and ignores the awful stuff, bad SF forgets about the damage that change wreaks on a society on the way to Star Trek.
    This is a theme I suspect I will be returning to in other essays.

    That said, Kay is worth your time to read. Even Jose gives him a grudging thumbs up, and you know how rare those are.

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