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The Last Light of the Sun

by Guy Gavriel Kay

(Pocket Books, £7.99, 512 pages, paperback, first published 2004, this edition July 2005, ISBN 0743484231.)

Review by Sandy Auden

Each Guy Gavriel Kay novel is a labour of love. He's an author who produces a book every three years, rather than the usual The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kayone a year, and the additional time investment means that there's never a rushed feel to the story--every aspect of Last Light of the Sun oozes with care and attention.

This time around, Kay has been busy recreating the Viking era of Scandanavia and the British Isles. Bern Thorkellson is forced to pay for his father's murderous actions by becoming a slave at the local manor while his father is exiled from their island, their property confiscated and his mother taken to wife by a local official. Before long, Bern's hatred of his situation leads him to steal a horse and flee, almost losing his life twice on the journey. Landless and broke, only one option is open to him--to join the mercenaries at Jormsvik, but passing the initiation test puts his life in the balance once more. Meanwhile, across the water, two princes are raiding in the neighbouring Kingdom, but Brynn ap Hywll's property is about to be attacked by a larger force. Through the blood and fear, the lives of a prince and a cleric will twist together into a single future, and their journey will take them to the royal court of King Aeldred--a man bent on uniting his country and defending it from the vicious warriors assailing its shores.

Kay's love of history is the first aspect of Last Light that shines out clearly. The author creates a palpable atmosphere through his use of historical detail, from the minutae of everyday life, through to the attitudes of the people and the events that shape their world. There are no dry technical facts and what Kay delivers is a living, breathing, burping, laughing, fighting narration where you can smell the horse dung on the roads and feel the cold radiating from the castle's stone walls in Winter.

More atmosphere builds through the author's use of language. Names like Halldr, Ceinion and Aeldred conjure their own ancient images. Rhythmic sentences, vivid descriptions and the ebb and flow of dialogue all work to expand those images further. And Kay's use of speech is intelligent and layered too--it drives the plot and illustrates his 9th Century world concurrently. It's never wasted or pointless.

And there's more. Kay's prose style is rather adventurous in places. Not only does he use an informal style though out the main body of the book:

He felt it hit hard, but not bite. He had used the flat of his sword. Couldn't have said why.

But he also blends the present tense with unusual cadences to demonstrate the strangeness of the faeries:

She feels hooves on the earth, west of them. Her own fear, before sight. The riders leaping the fence, smashing through it into the farmyard below, and fire is thrown and iron is drawn, is everywhere, sharp as death, heavy as death.

It is a little unsettling at first, but that's mostly because it's an unusual mixture of tenses and style that's not often attempted in fantasy novels. However, Kay knows his audience is up to the challenge and before long you're well into the swing of it.

The story structure is another aspect that shows the benefits of extra attention. Last Light of the Sun is a prose spiral. Starting with a wide vista concerning kingdoms, it then narrows down to focus on the different nationalities until everything draws tightly together--with the individual characters finally moving under their own spotlights. Kay even manages to spin-off additional stories at tangents along the way to show how the stories of side characters are equally valid. Careful selection of these potted histories adds even more depth and complexity to an already detailed world.

Combine all of these elements together and you find that Last Light of the Sun is carefully constructed, lavishly written, and easy for readers to love too. Haunting, intelligent, fascinating and fun--what's not to love?

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