Guy Gavriel Kay is only a recent discovery for me, but after reading Tigana in June I knew I wanted to read more of his work. Leander of The Idle Woman mentioned that she had been wanting to re-read The Lions of Al-Rassan, one of her favourite books, so we decided it would be interesting to read it at the same time and exchange our thoughts on it.
I should start by saying that although Kay is known as a fantasy author, this book has few, if any, elements that I would describe as ‘fantasy’ and is much closer to historical fiction. The story is set in a fictitious world very similar to medieval Spain. In the north, we have the sun-worshipping Jaddites – brave warriors and horsemen. The Jaddite lands have become divided and weakened over the years due to rivalries between their three kings but they still hope to one day ride south and reconquer the rest of the peninsula. In the south is Al-Rassan, the land of the Asharites, who worship the stars and who value poetry, music and beauty. After the death of their last Khalif, Al-Rassan has also become divided and is not as strong as it once was. Caught between the two are the wandering Kindath people, who pray to the two moons that shine in the sky, one blue and one white. Even with my very limited (almost non-existent) knowledge of Spanish history I could immediately see that the Jaddites represented Christians, the Asharites Muslims and the Kindath Jews.
As tension builds between the Jaddites and the Asharites and war begins to look inevitable, there are big consequences for the novel’s three central characters. One of these is Rodrigo Belmonte, Captain to a Jaddite king and one of the Jaddites’ greatest soldiers. When Rodrigo is exiled by his king he and his company find themselves in the Asharite city of Ragosa. Here he meets another great man, Ammar ibn Khairan, an Asharite who is also in exile, and the two form an instant connection. Our third protagonist is a woman, Jehane bet Ishak, a Kindath physician who joins Rodrigo’s company and becomes close to both men. With the peninsula heading rapidly towards conflict, will the bonds between Rodrigo, Ammar and Jehane be able to survive?
Now that I’ve read two of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels, it’s hard to say which I liked best because both were such great books. I think I found Tigana more fun to read (simply because I read fantasy so rarely these days and it was something a bit different for me to read a book with magic and wizards) but I found the writing in The Lions of Al-Rassan more powerful and the characters more fully developed. Ammar, Rodrigo and Jehane are all characters that I could love and admire, and considering their very different backgrounds and cultures, it’s quite an achievement that Kay could make it possible to identify with and care about all three of them.
Although this novel is set in a fictional land, the parallels with a real period of history made me feel that I was gaining a better understanding of medieval Spain. But as well as the history, there’s also a lot of drama and excitement throughout the novel: among other things, there are battles, assassination attempts (both successful and unsuccessful), and a masked Carnival. What I really loved about this book, though, was the portrayal of the three main characters and the relationships between them. It’s not as simple as Jehane being in love with both men (or them being in love with her) and having to choose between them; although there is a romantic aspect, the relationships are much deeper and more complex than that and encompass not just love but also friendship, loyalty and trust.
There’s a growing sense of sadness too as you start to approach the end of the book and wonder whether all three of Ammar, Jehane and Rodrigo will survive the coming conflict and how they will cope if they find themselves on opposite sides. The final chapter was one of the most tense and emotional I’ve read for some time, though I thought it would have been even more effective without the epilogue that followed (I was pleased to see that Leander felt the same as I was wondering whether I was the only person who would rather not have had the loose ends tied up).
I’m excited about the prospect of working my way through the rest of Kay’s books, but I’m sure I’ll want to re-read this one at some point too – preferably after I’ve had a chance to read up on Spanish history! If you would like to see what Leander thought of The Lions of Al-Rassan, you can read her post here.