The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World's Oldest Game

by J. C. Hallman
ISBN: 0312272936

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A Review of: The Last Light of the Sun
by Patrick Burger

The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay is a a worthy addition to the fantasy genre. The story of the simultaneous quests of a host of characters is spellbinding and links Kay's fantasy world to our own. Bern Thorkellson-the socially disadvantaged son of a murderer-encounters characters like Alun ob Owyn, a Cyngael prince mourning the death of his brother, and Anrid the Serpent, a young woman struggling to succeed in a turbulent network of religion and politics. Kay not only weaves his tale flawlessly, he compells the reader to meditate on the historical basis for his story and thus on the actual history of the British Isles.
J.R.R. Tolkien argued that for a work to be considered fantasy it requires two things: an imaginary world not connected to our real one (a "sub-creation" to use Tolkien's term) and the presence of the super-natural in the matrix of the tale and the sub-created world. Kay remains true to this formula by introducing a fairy early in the tale, a fairy who is first seen by Cyngael prince Alun ob Owyn on the night his brother is killed by Erling raiders. While there are no wizards flinging fireballs in Kay's story, nor many overt magical elements, the fairy herself constitutes a manifestation of the super-natural with an outcome more profound than is generally the case for books of this genre. The fairy's witnessed existence causes an existential crisis for the characters in contact with Alun, particularly for Ceinion, a Cyngael priest of the sun god Jad, who teaches that the old beliefs' are simply superstition, not based on anything real. Through a seemingly borderline fulfillment of Tolkien's supernatural criteria, Kay is able to do what good fantasy ought to do: highlight one of his major themes-in this case, the overturning of established religious belief.
The young Alun, who-in a way analogous to the Dark Age Celts that the Cyngael are modelled on-is a believer in Jad, a god intended by Kay to evoke the Christian god, but with Christianity's Mithraic root. The prince's relationship with a creature he is told does not exist shakes his faith, and the ripples set off by this very personal crisis eventually affect Aeldred, King of Anglcyn, and High Priest Ceinion himself.
Alun's knowledge of the fairy threatens to undermine the very foundation of the Anglcyn kingdom. Anglcyn's fight to stave off the Thnir-worshipping pagan Erling invaders has been fueled largely by a conviction that Jad is the true and only god and that the religion of the pagans dooms the Erlings to defeat. What's at stake for Aeldred and Ceinion and those that follow them is literally everything: the survival of their religion, their culture and civilization-a concern which echoes back at the reader from every corner of our modern world.
This need to stand on guard for one's religion-one's entire Weltanschauung-is a central thematic component. When Aeldred tries to secure the wise and influential Ceinion as a personal advisor in order to ensure the survival of Anglcyn's Jaddite faith, Ceinion rejects Aeldred's request because he is concerned about his even more imperilled Cyngael homeland:

"Do not think I am not tempted. But I have tasks in the west. We Cyngael live where the farthest light of Jad falls. The last light of the sun. It needs attending to, my lord, lest it fail."

Forced to accept that Ceinion will not to be devoting his energies to fortifying Anglcyn, Aeldred broaches the problem of his greater agenda-to spread and secure the worship of Jad over the very Europe-like continent that both the Anglcyn and Cyngael lands are part of: "How do we build anything to last, when it might come down at any time?"
That Kay uses this dilemma as the motor for his tale (knowing well the resonance it has for his readers) explains in part why he deals with the second of Tolkien's criteria for fantasy, the sub-creation, as he does. As the paths of pagan Erling raider, Bern Thorkellson, and fairy-haunted Alun ob Owyn draw ever more characters with them across the length and breadth of their world, the reader cannot to the British Isles-more specifically, the British Isles during the reign of Alfred the Great, on whom Aeldred, High King of Anglcyn, is modelled. Kay's strategy of basing his fantasyworld so closely on actual European history and geography is again a borderline nod to fantasy's conventions. H.P. Lovecraft once criticized Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Cimmerian, for obvious parallels to European history in his fictional Hyborian Age. How would Lovecraft have reacted to Kay? He would perhaps think Kay's Anglcyn, Cyngael and Vinmark lands a cheeky affront to fantasy's sub-creation convention, which requires that the reader accept the sub-creation as a "real" place, independent of any place that actually exists or existed. Kay clearly does not care whether or not his borrowing' is noticed; in fact, he forces the reader to reflect on the history that he is appropriating for the story.
While Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age and Tolkien's Middle Earth do have parallels with European history and geography, both authors took pains to make their worlds appear to have their own reality. The reader is expected to accept the Hyborian Age and Middle Earth as real and self-contained worlds. By contrast, Kay makes no attempt to conceal the fact that his sub-creation employs the maps and histories of Europe with the names changed and a bit of magic thrown in.
Kay's decision to parallel the era of Alfred the Great may have had something to do with developments in our real and current world. Alfred was a Christian king in a land being swept by a tidal wave of Germanic paganism in the form of Viking raiders and settlers-a land, it must be remembered, that was pagan in the first place, with both Celtic and Germanic spiritual beliefs and practices (overlaid with Roman paganism). Nevertheless, Alfred was able to firmly ensconce Christianity and to found the nation which would of the success of another imperiled English ruler is a form of reassurance to his readers-as is, paradoxically, pagan Erling raider Bern Thorkellson's final decision.
While Aeldred's success in repelling an Erling raid-and in finally building a fleet to stop all future raids-seems to point to a purely military solution, Kay introduces other elements he deems necessary in order to build something to last'. In fact it is Thorkell, the father of Bern, emerging in the tale's most exciting phase as a pivotal character, who is the conduit for these elements. Thorkell initially seems to be merely the absent father whom Bern despises, and then a traitor to his fellow Erling raiders as a consequence of saving a Cyngael princess after Alun's brother is killed. Kay keeps Thorkell under the reader's radar when the middle-aged ex-raider manages to get himself attached to Ceinion as a servant. But then, with Kay's inspired plotting, Thorkell steadily assumes more importance as the story hurtles to its climax: he leads a desperate ride through the fairy-haunted woods in order to prevent a blood-bath between the fleeing Erlings (his son among them) and King Aeldred's Anglcyn. With a stunningly selfless act he not only saves countless lives and secures the coasts of Anglcyn-he also makes it possible for the Erlings to overthrow their cruel leader. The Erlings are not redeemed overnight; indeed, Thorkell's genius allows them to seize the greatest prize of all. But for Bern Thorkellson the road home has been cleared. He is finally able to return to the isle of his birth and find Anrid the Serpent-that young woman who had once saved his life-waiting for him, and for a decision he is at last able to make. That decision signals that peace is possible-and is implicitly a rejection of the apocalyptic world view held by Aeldred and Ceinion and many people in our own "clash of cultures" era. Bern, a worshipper of the war gods Thnir and Ingavin, reveals that he has desires in common with all humanity, even though he needs Anrid to make him aware of it. The young woman, who has become a high-ranking priestess of the goddesses in his absence, has located Bern's mother: "We've been to the farmhouse together," the girl said. "Your father's. Itcan be bought again. If you want." This longing for home, for peace, for family, for heritage and for prosperity is one that reaches across cultures and religions-and across the world of fantasy to our own.

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