The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Lions of Al-Rassan 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.

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay Tigana is a fantasy novel set in the Peninsular of the Palm, a world loosely based on Renaissance Italy. Divided into nine rival provinces, the Palm is an easy target for two invading tyrants, one from the east and one from the west. Four of the Palm’s nine provinces have fallen to Alberico of Barbadior and four to Brandin of Ygrath, both powerful sorcerers, with only one province still to be conquered.

During the battle for one of these provinces, Prince Valentin of Tigana killed Brandin’s son, Stevan, which brought down Brandin’s wrath upon the entire province and its people. Brandin destroyed Tigana’s cities, its culture and its identity, then to complete his revenge he wiped all memory of Tigana and even its name from the minds of everyone in the peninsular, with the exception of those who were born in the province before the invasion. Eighteen years later, at the time when our story is set, a group of Tiganese exiles (including Prince Valentin’s only surviving son) set out to free the Palm of the two tyrants and restore Tigana’s name to the world.

This is the first book by Guy Gavriel Kay I’ve read, although I’ve been aware of his books for years and am now annoyed with myself for waiting so long to actually read one! I loved Tigana – not unreservedly, but enough to make it one of my books of the year so far.

I’ll admit to being very confused at first, as Kay doesn’t make things easy for the reader and throws us straight into a strange, unfamiliar world. Making a few notes of names and places helped, but really all that was needed was some patience. By the time I was halfway through the book, a world with one blue moon and one white, where people worship a Triad of Gods called Eanna, Adaon and Morian, and where wizards can be recognised by their two missing fingers, seemed almost as real as our own! I very rarely read fantasy anymore (not for any particular reason; I did used to enjoy it and am not sure why or when I stopped) but I actually thought that the overall feel of the book and the effort needed to understand the history, folklore and politics of the Palm were not a lot different from reading historical fiction. I could soon see the parallels with Renaissance Italy and the way its feuding city states left it vulnerable to threats from outside.

One of the things I liked about this book is that, with the possible exception of Alberico, none of the characters are portrayed as entirely good or entirely bad. The best example of this is probably Brandin of Ygrath, who at first appears to be one of the villains of the book because of what he has done to Tigana. It’s only later in the novel that we start to get closer to Brandin and see him from the point of view of the woman who loves him. This is Dianora, who is herself from Tigana and has spent several years in Brandin’s saishan (harem) on the island of Chiara, intending to kill him and lift his curse from Tigana. However, when she finds herself falling in love with him, she begins to wonder whether she’ll be able to carry her plan through to its end. I didn’t particularly like Dianora or agree with all of her choices, but I thought the scenes describing her internal conflict were very well written.

I don’t think the problem I had with Dianora was necessarily with the character herself, by the way, but more with the fact that her introduction into the novel came at a point where I had just begun to really understand the plot and to get to know Devin, Alessan, Catriana and the other characters; at that stage I didn’t want to be taken away from them and have to spend two chapters meeting a new character with a long backstory. I did become more interested in Dianora later in the book, but her sections were never my favourites and I was always glad to get back to the other characters’ storylines.

Another example of the boundaries between right and wrong becoming blurred involves the binding of a wizard. I don’t want to go into too many details as part of the fun of reading this book, being someone who doesn’t read much fantasy, was in learning about the various types of magic used in the Palm. However, the wizard binding episode raised some interesting questions. Can it ever be right to enslave a man against his will? Is the freedom of one person as important as the freedom of an entire nation?

As for the ending of the book, I both liked it and disliked it. I couldn’t quite believe in one of the romantic pairings at the end, as there had been so little hint of it throughout the book. There were other things that were left unresolved (or rather, they weren’t resolved in the way I wanted them to be) but I could accept that not everybody could have a happy ending. The revelation about one of the characters (again, I don’t want to say too much here and spoil the story for future readers) was heartbreaking! And the very last line of the epilogue is one of those final sentences that leaves you with something to continuing thinking about and trying to interpret even after you close the book and put it back on the shelf. I’ve got The Lions of Al-Rassan to read next and am excited to think that I might potentially have a new name to add to my list of favourite authors!