Guy Gavriel Kay – The Lions of Al-Rassan
103. The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay (1995)
Length: 544 pages
Genre: Fantasy (ish)
Started: 08 October 2007
Finished: 16 October 2007
Summary: Made-up names and made-up religions keep this book from being historical fiction, but it’s misclassified as fantasy – no magic, no dragons, just people and their countries and histories and lives and loves. This book tells the story of a peninsula obviously meant to evoke medieval Spain, divided between three faiths and many more rulers. The Jaddites, who rule the three kingdoms of Esperaña to the north, worship the sun, the Asharites, who rule the various city-states of Al-Rassan to the south, worship the stars, and the Kindath, who worship the moons, rule nowhere but persist in the face of persecution everywhere. On one terrible day of violence in Fezana, an Asharite-controlled city near the Jaddite lands, Jehane, a Kindath physician, meets two of the most important and dangerous men on the penninsula – Ammar ibn Khairan, assassin, poet, and chancellor to the king of Al-Rassan, and Rodrigo Belmonte, undefeated captain of the Jaddite Horsemen. Stemming from the events of that day, the lives of all three of them will change, as their histories, loyalties, faiths, and deepest beliefs are called into question as those with political and religious power sweep the continent towards the brink of holy war.
Review: To be honest, this book was a bit of a slow starter for me. I’d really enjoyed what I’d previously read of Kay’s (Tigana and A Song for Arbonne), but in the early sections of this book, I just wasn’t as drawn in as I was to those others. I think this is because initially, the only character with whom I really empathized was Jehane; she’s the only one whose vulnerabilities we’re allowed to see, whose head we’re allowed to get inside, and so time spent with the other characters (of which there is quite a bit) feels a little more remote. As the story progresses, however, and we learn more and more about the two men in Jehane’s life and the political movements of the penninsula, I became more and more engrossed, to the point where the last 25 pages or so almost wrecked me.
Kay’s writing is wonderful; lush and descriptive and marvelously able to capture these little nuggets of real human emotion. He is quite fond of dropping hints of impending danger and leaving things unanswered and unknown until a few pages or a few chapters later, which heightens the tension of the reading experience but also had me flipping forward a few pages, figuring out exactly who died or who was wearing what mask, etc., and then going back and re-reading a section so that I could understand what was going on.
This book is also quite good at presenting complex fictional (if strongly based in historical fact) political maneuverings and subtleties in a way that even I, who has limited patience for such things, was able to grasp them – and what’s more, care about them. One slightly sour note, then, was that while the political worldbuilding was excellent, the religious worldbuilding was a little hollow. Kay’s usually quite good at this – Tigana, in particular, had a clever and deftly integrated system of magic – and so it was a little disappointing that the three religions in question seemed more like shells – worshippers of sun, moons, stars – without much real ideology to back them up.
This wasn’t really a book about religion, though, it was a book about religion interacting with politics, faith interacting with loyalty, history and duty interacting with friendship and love. And, for all it was based on medieval Spain, there are some uncanny (and rather upsetting) parallels to be drawn to the state of world affairs today. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: This book isn’t perfect, but it was beautifully written and deeply moving, and I would recommend it without hesitation to fans of fantasy, historical fiction, and generally well-crafted fiction.