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.
on 29 May 2000
In The Lions of Al Rassan Kay takes the history of the struggle for Spain between Christian and Moor that lasted 1000 years and condenses it into a powerfull and magical story of one turbulent year. The story centers around a small circle of characters; Ammar a poet and a warrior, Rodrigo a soldier with more honour than those he serves, Jehane a doctor from an outcast people and Alvar a young soldier who thinks to much and speaks too quickly. Around these characters Kay has woven a story of strength and beauty of the clash of armies, the re-shaping of a world and the force of religious fanatisism.
Yet a it's core this is a book about four people with strengths and weaknesses who stay true to their ideals and natures and write themselves a place in history.
This theme has been dealt with before, Holywood tackled it and Charlton Heston became El Cid. The spine tinkling feeling that I felt at the end of that movie when the dead El Cid rides forth to battle for a new Spain is the same feeling I had although reading Kay's book.
If I could write one book myself and never to write again then I would wish to tell a story with this much power, this much sadness and this much Humanity.
on 10 April 2002
This is beautifully written. So much fantasy relies on covering its deficiencies as literature by sweeping the reader along with an exciting storyline. Here, every word is worth savouring. Characters are fully drawn, and the twists of the plot are satisfying as well as thrilling. The author creates vivid pictures of locales and action. This is a mature work that stands apart from most of its genre.
on 21 June 2002
Guy Gavriel Kay was first noticed when he edited the Silmarilliion with Christopher Tolkien. Following this he wrote a trilogy called "The Fionavar Tapestry". These books established Kay as a truly talented writer. His lyrical writing style provided a wonderful antidote to the established "quest" style of fantasy novel.
After this trilogy he began to write novels that could be described as "Alternative History". Whilst set on "fantasy" worlds the novels were visibly based upon real-world events. For example, A Song for Arbonne is based upon Medieval France and the concepts of courtly love.
All this brings me to Kay's masterwork - The Lions of Al-Rassan. This novel is set in Kay's interpretation of a Moorish Spain (including a take on The Day of the Ditch). The three principal characters representing the three faiths involved in the struggle for freedom (from oppression and intolerance), for this is a novel about faith and humanity.
Ammar ibn-Khairan - poet, diplomat, assassin - represents the ruling class of Al-Rassan (based upon the Islamic faith). Rodrigo Belmonte - soldier - the Jaddite war-leader in exile (Catholic). And the woman at the centre of the conflict - Jehane, a Kindath (Jewish) physician. Events conspire to pull the characters together in the lakeside city of Ragosa where they overcome ideological differences in the cause of freedom.
This novel is Kay at his most poetic, it has a beauty that flows from the writing and makes you wish that this novel would not end. For you know, whilst reading, that this can only end badly. The characters have but a small time to live without conflict before they are ripped apart by religion and war. By providing such perfectly drawn characters Kay pulls you into their world and subtly highlights the dangers of religious intolerance. You care - and that makes you think - and that is something that not a lot of books can achieve.
In conclusion; read this novel and read everything else Guy Gavriel Kay has ever written. There is no author who is better at making you care so much about characters that you hurt alongside them.
Al-Rassan was the stronghold of the western Asharite faith until Ammar ibn Khairan killed the last khalif, splintering the land into feuding city-states. In the north the Jaddite kingdom of Esperana similarly splintered into three smaller nations, each harbouring a desire to conquer the others and unify the entire peninsular in the worship of the sun-god. King Ramiro of Valledo appears to be the most likely to succeed, due to the skills of his infamous general Rodrigo Belmonte and his elite company of soldiers. Political intrigue and expediency soon see both Rodrigo and Ammar exiled to Ragosa, the beautiful Asharite city by the lake, where their destinies become entwined with that of Jehane, a Kindath physician, and where the fate of Al-Rassan and Esperana will be decided.
When it comes to epic fantasy, Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the more interesting writers around. For someone toiling in the genre of vast armies and immense battles, the depiction of war and combat seems to mildly bore him. That's not to say that Kay can't handle those elements, but he is far more interested in his characters, in their motivations and what role they play in the political world around them. A possible weakness of Kay's work is that his fascination with his character's internal struggles sometimes displaces his interest in the wider plot (as in The Sarantine Mosaic, the languid pace of which detracts from a strong central premise), but in his strongest works - this book, Tigana and A Song for Arbonne - he combines this element with a mastery of storytelling to produce something truly compelling.
This is the story of El Cid and the Reconquista of Spain given a thorough make-over, with historical elements mixing with original material throughout. On one level, Kay's light remixing of history occasionally makes the reader wonder what the point of 'fantasising' the story was in the first place. It's pretty clear throughout that the Kindath are the Jews, the Asharites are Muslims and the Jaddites are Christians (even though their individual belief systems are very different to the 'real' religions, everything else is practically identical, down to their naming conventions). In fact, one of the reasons for the delay of the long-gestating movie version of the novel appears to be writer and director uncertainty whether the film should reflect the book or be set in 'proper' Al-Andalus. However, these factors do allow Kay to tell his own story, using history where he wants but retaining the freedom to create his own material elsewhere. Most notably, he manages to compress the latter four centuries of the Reconquista into a much smaller period of time to better suit the action. The result is a story which feels familiar and new at the same time.
The book studies several themes and ideas: faith and tolerance, friendship and love, family and camaraderie, war and idealism. Kay illuminates these ideas through his characters, and whilst Kay has always been a gifted creator of fascinating protagonists, arguably he has never bettered the cast of this book: Ammar and Rodrigo, whose rivalry and friendship forms the core of the novel; the gifted physician Jehane; the imprudent soldier Alvar; even minor characters like the merchant Husari and the outlaw Tarif, all seem to leap off the page as fully-formed individuals, whose actions and reactions will determine the fate of the peninsular. Events culminate in the book's inevitable final showdown, and whilst some readers may find the skipping of much of the war and the major battles to focus on one key event in particular to be a bit of a cop-out, those familiar with Kay will recognise that for him, war is nothing to be glorified in its depiction, but only to be used as an event to mould his characters and reflect on them, and in that endeavour he succeeds impressively.
The Lions of Al-Rassan (*****) is a book that has improved since I first read it thirteen years ago. Thoughtful but never boring, dramatic but never over-the-top, it is a beautifully-written and thought-provoking novel from one of fantasy's more underrated authors. The novel is shamefully out-of-print in the UK, but the Voyager paperback edition can still be found on Amazon. The US edition is published by Eos.
on 7 May 2000
Once there were lions they say. Once the world was a very different place. But our characters live in the here and now, in the faded remains of the past and with all future possibilities hanging over them. This is the story of one season, a remarkable friendship and the best duel scene I have ever read. The last chapter will keep you hanging on and on to find out exactly what has happened. I defy you to read this without crying. Not Tigana - but oh, so close.
on 8 August 1999
Guy Gavriel Kay is one of fantasy's more individual authors: First, unlike most of his contemporaries, he has abandoned the series for stand alone works; second, each of his books takes place within different and distinct worlds loosely based upon actual historic periods; and, finally, his writing is more mature and skilled than the majority of his peers, verging in style upon that of the traditional historical romance.
In "Lions of Al-Rasshad" Kay turns to the period of Moorish Spain for the backdrop to his tale, interweaving the cultural and political conflicts between Moslem, Jew, and Aryan nobility, each struggling to retain their cultural heritage while attempting to achieve dominance over their cultural as well as religious foes. Typical of Kay's work since the "Fionovar Trilogy," the resolution of their mutual struggles and intrigues are neither conclusive nor entirely expected, elevating the story above the typical good triumphing over evil common to fantasy tales. Nor are Kay's characters reduced to architypal caricutures, but instead are motivated by personal and often conflicting motives all too human to be viewed simply in terms of right and wrong. And, as always, Kay brings to his work a freshness in approach that makes his work stand apart from the rest of contemporary fantasy.
Too bad he doesn't receive the attention he deserves.
on 26 January 2004
One of the best books I have ever read.
I had read some of Kays other books and was quite impressed but this is far better than any of the others.
The characters are realistic and have a lot of depth; the plot moves along at good pace while seeming to be easy going and relaxed.
The two main characters are superb.
They are likeable, intelligent and interesting.
There are nice flashes of humour which actually work and seem narural (normally the humour in fantasy novels comes across as forced and not at all funny) and the dialog is quick and smart.
The side characters are also given enough space to be memorable. The politics and action are well written and believable.
The ending a slightly overplayed, and that is the one criticism I have of the book.
There is enough in this book that most authors would have expanded it into a trilogy but it's brevity gives it an extra impact that might have been lost otherwise.
In summary this book is well worth the price with almost no bad points and plenty of good ones.
on 5 March 2004
The Lions of Al-Rassan is a fantastic book. I just finished reading it for the third time and I still find it riveting. This book makes me cry, laugh and smile. The main character is Jehane, a Kindath doctor. She is direct, kind, and a great protagonist for the novel. The reader follows several other characters as they travel through their turbulent lives. As the novel progresses, these many characters meet and interact with Jehane. The reader watches as Jehane's people are wromgfully persecuted for no reason (much like the Jews during the Crusades), and as a holy war is brought about with the urging of a restless clergy.The Lions of Al-Rassan is a fantasy based very loosely on the Reconquista of Spain during the Middle Ages. It is a terrific book filled with nuances and intrigue, romance. excitement, and sorrow. This book is better than any movie for those with vivid imaginations.
Guy Gavriel Kay is rather well known as a master of alternative history and a superb novelist who makes his characters come to life and makes the readers empathize, breath and feel with them. This is what happens in The Lions of Al-Rassan, a novel that takes pace in an alternate Iberian peninsula split between Asharite (Muslim) States, after their unified state has fragmented, and Jaddite (Christian) kingdoms. The story is largely inspired from the life and times of El Cid (Rodrigo de Bivar in history, Rodrigo Belmonte, in the book) and the beginning of the Reconquista of the peninsula, except that Kay compresses the timeline so that it is Rodrigo's sons who complete the re-conquest which, in reality, took several centuries.
As usual, Kay's studies of characters and depiction of human emotions is remarkable with conflicting feelings such as honour, friendship and love being on display. What is also remarkable is that most of the historical characters are clearly recognizable and Kay has been extremely careful to get all the details right, except for the ones that he intended to modify. Rodrigo's alter ego in the book is based on someone who really existed and was a councillor, commander and poet, even if he does not seem to have befriended the historical Rodrigo. The Asharite and Jaddite Kings are also based on historical characters, even if their circumstances may have been modified. For instance King Almalik of Cartada is based on Al'Mutadid of Cordoba who was the most successful of theTaifa kings and managed to absorb many of his rivals. King Ramiro of Valledo is based on Alfonso VI and his wife was the daughter of the duke of Burgundy (in the book, she is the daughter of the King of Ferrieres).
There is, however, much more to this book than just research, clever transpositions, battles and high and noble feelings. This book is a very moving one and makes use of what seems to be one of Kay's favourite themes: that of a doomed and refined civilization, just about to be attacked and destroyed by fanatics. This was the impression and dominant theme in A Song for Arbonne (which takes place at a slighter latter date and is loosely based on the Albigeois Crusade). It is also the theme here, except that it is reinforced because the beauty of Al-Rassan will fall prey to the assaults of both the Jaddite (Christians) from the north and from the Muwardi tribes (based on the Murabituns). So, in addition to the noble sentiments and romance, to plenty of battles and actions, you also get the poetry and the sadness of those who know that their world is dying, that there little they can do about it, and that nothing will be like it was before. This is Guy Gavriel Kay at his best.
For those who would want to compare Kay's novel with the bits of history that he has used for inspiration, here are two suggested books, both from Richard Fletcher,which can be used as "companions" to this one (at least it worked very well for me when I did this!):
- The Quest for El Cid
- Moorish Spain