Fantasy has always been inspired by history, but in recent years what was once an accepted undercurrent has become a full-blown trend—from Susanna Clarke’s magical retelling of the Napoleonic Wars in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to George R.R. Martin’s War of the Roses-inspired A Song of Ice and Fire series. In their new fantasy novels, W.M. Akers and Guy Gavriel Kay offer two compelling and well-crafted takes on the historical record.
A Brightness Long Ago is classic Kay. A beautifully rendered depiction of Renaissance Italy, the fantasy icon’s latest work is filled with compelling characters and a multifaceted tragedy that is as emotionally resonant as it is inevitable. The longstanding feud between Teobaldo Monticola and Folco Cino, mercenary lords of Remigio and Acorsi, dominates their lives and the lives of all close to them, from the brilliant, driven Adria Ripoli to the observant Danio Cerra, a scholar and diplomat who travelled with both Monticola and Cino for a time. Kay once again immerses his readers in a kaleidoscopic world of ambition, politics and romance. By the end, there are no clear antagonists, and the plot is recast as just one episode in the long, slow decline of the Rhodian Empire and the decadent and fragmented Church that sustained it. For devoted fans of Kay’s work, there are myriad connections to other novels, especially Children of Earth and Sky and The Sarantine Mosaic. But A Brightness Long Ago easily stands on its own as a masterful addition to Kay’s historical fantasy oevre.
In contrast to Kay’s elegiac style, Akers’s Westside revels in stripping its characters of their carefully constructed mythologies and revealing their seedy, petty true selves. Few of Akers’ characters are fully redeemable, and those who do possess better natures are relatively feckless. In Akers’ Prohibition-era New York City, street gangs and moonshine smugglers rule over a city slowly being devoured by a mysterious darkness. Gilda Carr is a private detective specializing in “little mysteries” whose search for a missing glove sends her down a rabbit hole of secret documents, all-consuming greed and personal rivalries that threatens the lives and souls of her friends and her home. While Kay’s characters play their parts in a world that turns beneath them, Akers’ protagonists have all the agency in their stories and must decide whether to use that power to repair their city or repair their pasts.
There is a minimalist elegance to the magic in both worlds. And neither book uses its fantastical elements to alter the historical timeline, as Clarke’s titular magicians do with abandon. But fantasy is essential to both stories nevertheless, and both A Brightness Long Ago and Westside are welcome additions to the burgeoning genre of historical fantasy.