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Quite simply a masterpiece
on 3 November 2003
This is one of those rare books of near-transformative beauty and resonance. _The Lions of Al-Rassan_ is a densely-woven, hugely rewarding novel drawing on the themes of the Spanish Reconquista. The setting is an analogue of medieval Spain, as the Jaddite (Christian) and Asharite (Muslim) powers are pushed towards an apparently inevitable conflict by a mixture of piety, politics, and personal grievances. In between, caught as ever in the crossfire, are the wandering Kindath (the Jews).
At the heart of the story is a complex series of personal relationships, drawn with such clarity and emotional honesty that the reader never loses sight of the human consequences of the epic events. In particular, there is the emerging friendship (and love) between the three central characters: Rodrigo Belmonte, celebrated Jaddite war leader (the novel's El Cid); Ammar ibn Khairan, an Asharite poet, soldier and diplomat; and Jehane bet Ishak, a female Kindath physician. All three are unique and memorable creations, living, breating and believably conflicted people, showcasing Kay's talent for well-rounded characters.
In bringing these three together - exiled to a brilliant Asharite city-state as the peninsula moves to the brink of war - the novel provides not only a highly-involving (and extremely moving) read, but it also elegantly underscores the themes of the work. Demonstrating the impact of the coming war upon the main characters' lives and loves, Kay explores how religious and cultural fundamentalism fractures and polarises societies, shutting down the spaces in which people may interact simply as human beings. Wider political considerations put them on opposite sides of the conflict, with shattering results. What emerges is a lament for a lost world, for the dream of _convivencia_ - the peaceful and creative co-existence of cultures of which we are offered a tantalising glimpse in the figures of Ammar, Rodrigo and Jehane.
Ultimately, this is a poignant, intelligent, and profound work, a classic of historically-inspired fiction rendered in lucid, lyrical prose.