Guy Gavriel Kay:The Lions of Al-Rassan

Guy Gavriel Kay got his start by co-editing the Silmarillion with Christopher Tolkien. Then he did his own Tolkienesque trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry. The three books since then have thankfully not followed down that path.

Tigana, A Song For Arbonne, and, most recently, The Lions of Al-Rassan, are all set in analogues to medieval European countries, where Kay himself went to live while writing the book. Tigana was set in Italy; A Song For Arbonne in Provence, i.e. southern France around the time of the troubadours; and The Lions of Al-Rassan in Spain when two-thirds of it was Muslim.

Like Arbonne, The Lions of Al-Rassan is only barely a fantasy novel in the strictest sense. Were the names changed, it could be a historical novel, or at least alternate history. There is no magic, apart from one character with psychic gifts. But this book has the feeling of fantasy to it, and so into that genre it goes.

Al-Rassan is, or was, an Asharite(i.e. Muslim)caliphate in the southern two-thirds of what is essentially the Iberian Peninsula. Esperaña is, or was, the kingdom of the Jaddites(i.e. Christians)who have been driven back to the northern third. There are also Kindaths(i.e. Jews), who suffer the alternating tolerance and hatred they did in our world. Neither Al-Rassan nor Esperaña is united any longer. After the last caliph was slain, Al-Rassan is divided into city-states; and Esperaña is divided between two sons and one brother of its last king. The main characters are drawn from each religion: Ammar ibn Khairan, the Asharite who killed the last caliph of Al-Rassan; Rodrigo Belmonte, leader of an elite Jaddite force; and Jehane bet Ishak, a Kindath physician.

The biggest strength in Kay's writing is in writing scenes. For a while the book seems to move from exquisite scene to exquisite scene, with no unifying plot thread, as the characters meet, interact, and part. By the halfway point of the book, though, events in the world start to catch them up in their workings.

Kay is playing with some very interesting themes here. The main characters are of different religions, but grow to love each other, while the world around them polarizes into holy war. Yet they also remain loyal to their homelands even when in exile from them. They believe in the dreams that Al-Rassan and Esperaña can survive, and remain friends as long as they can even though they knew both dreams cannot come true.

If Kay's writing has a flaw in this book, it is that he has a bit too much of a tendency to alternately foreshadow events("Little did she know that...")and hide information from the reader("He told them this plan"). In most cases it works, but in others he is almost trying too hard to trick readers by playing on their assumptions. Still, I can forgive him for it, because this is such a wonderful book.

%A Kay, Guy Gavriel
%T The Lions of Al-Rassan
%I Penguin Viking
%C Toronto
%D 1995
%G ISBN 0-670-85896-X
%P 582 pp.
%O Hardcover, Can$29.99

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The Den of Ubiquity / Aaron V. Humphrey / alfvaen@gmail.com