The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Last Light of the Sun I’m hoping to read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven soon for the Once Upon A Time challenge, but first I need to tell you about another of his novels which I read a few weeks ago: The Last Light of the Sun.

This is the third book I’ve read by Kay and like the other two (Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan) it is set in a fantasy world that closely resembles a real historical one. A blue moon and a white moon shine in the sky, faeries wait to claim the souls of the dead, and ancient magical forces lurk in the forest, yet the world portrayed in The Last Light of the Sun can easily be identified as Northern Europe in the time of the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons and the Celts.

In this re-imagined land, the Vikings have been renamed the Erlings, the Anglo-Saxons have become the Anglycn and the Celts have been transformed into the Cyngael. While the Erlings are sea-raiders who inhabit the islands in the far north, the Anglycn live in what is surely the country we now know as England, and the Cyngael live to the west, presumably in Wales. These lands of the Cyngael, on the western edge of the known world, are the last to see the light of the setting sun – and also form the final outpost of the new religion of Jad, the sun god.

Throughout the novel, we follow the adventures of three groups of characters from each of the three cultures I’ve described above. First, we meet Bern Thorkellson, a young Erling who has lost his lands and his freedom as a result of his father being exiled for murder. Desperate to escape and build a new life for himself, Bern joins a raiding party heading for the Anglycn shores. Meanwhile, in the Cyngael lands, two young princes called Alun and Dai happen to be spending the night at the home of a rival Cyngael warrior, Brynn ap Hywll, when it is attacked by another group of Erling raiders. Finally we get to know the family of the Anglcyn king, Aeldred, who has been trying to unite his people against the threat of the Erlings.

To describe the plot in any more detail would be difficult as it does become quite complex as the lives of each of these characters become entwined with all of the others. The author doesn’t really ‘take sides’ or favour one of the three cultures over the other two – perspectives and points of view are balanced fairly between the three and there are good people and bad within each group. Feuds and rivalries are formed, but so are friendships and loyalties as Erling, Anglcyn and Cyngael find that they need to adapt to a changing world.

One thing Kay does in this book, which I’m not sure I really like, is to occasionally leave his main characters behind for a while to explore the life of a completely new character who enters the novel for a few pages and then disappears, never to be mentioned again – as Kay himself describes it: “At the margins of any tale there are lives that come into it only for a moment. Or, put another way, there are those who run quickly through a story and then out, along their paths.” I can understand the reasons for this – to show us what is going on away from the central plot and the central characters – but I did find it slightly distracting.

This is a beautifully written novel, though, and as well as being an entertaining story, it’s also very thought-provoking in places. I particularly liked these two quotes:

“It happens this way. Small things, accidents of timing and congruence: and then all that flows in our lives from such moments owes its unfolding course, for good or ill, to them. We walk (or stumble) along paths laid down by people and events of which we remain forever ignorant. The road someone else never took, or travelled too late, or too soon, means an encounter, a piece of information, a memorable night, or death, or life.”

“A hard truth: that courage can be without meaning or impact, need not be rewarded, or even known. The world has not been made in that way. Perhaps, however, within the self there might come a resonance, the awareness of having done something difficult, of having done…something.”

I’ve loved all three of the Guy Gavriel Kay novels I’ve read so far and am looking forward to reading his others, beginning with Under Heaven. Have you read any of his books, and if so do you have a favourite?

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11 thoughts on “The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay

  1. Pam Thomas says:

    I love all Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, including this one, though as I read it I found it hard not to compare it with the historical events of Alfred’s reign, on which it’s strongly based. But my all-time favourite is Tigana. Wonderful, wonderful book, which like Dorothy Dunnett’s (he’s a Dunnett fan, by the way) amply repays multiple readings.
    The Chinese ones, Under Heaven and River of Stars, are also good, he’s incapable of writing bad prose, but Tigana is the best.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I had read somewhere that the character of Aeldred was based on King Alfred, though that’s not a period of history I’m very familiar with so I wasn’t able to make comparisons. I loved this book (and The Lions of Al-Rassan) but I agree that Tigana is wonderful and my favourite so far. I do want to re-read it, but will wait until I’ve finished working through the rest of his novels first!

  2. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    I read his Fionavar trilogy a long time ago and I am sure I read something in the historical vein but I can’t remember what! I keep seeing recommendations though and I definitely want to read more. Putting Tigana high on my list.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve heard that the Fionavar trilogy is quite different from the three novels I’ve read so far, but it sounds intriguing and I do want to read it eventually. Tigana is a great book – I’m glad it’s moving higher up your list!

  3. Rick MacDonnell @ Canon Fodder says:

    First of all, great review. I think Last Light of the Sun is one of his lesser-known novels, so to hear someone talk it up like this is great. I absolutely love Kay and would read anything he writes, but this one wasn’t really on my radar. Maybe it should be. It sounds great.

    Kay’s River of Stars is probably one of my three favorite novels of all time. I can only think of two others that effected me on the same emotional level (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams, and I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb).

    Given that it’s something of a successor to Under Heaven, I am dying to read that book. But I’m now at the point where I’m terrified to read more from Kay, because I can’t believe anything could approach River for me. Hopefully your reading of Under Heaven gives me a push I need.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks, Rick. I was afraid that this book might be disappointing, as it’s not one of Kay’s more popular novels, but I needn’t have worried – I loved it, though not quite as much as Tigana. It’s so beautifully written and covers a fascinating period of history.

      River of Stars sounds great and I can’t wait to read it (I love books that make an emotional impact on me), but I’m going to read Under Heaven first as I already have a copy of that one.

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