Reviews of The Lions of Al-Rassan

Al-RassanThis page contains reviews from:

  • Quill & Quire
  • The Edmonton Journal
  • The Washington Post Book World
  • Fantasy and Science-Fiction Magazine
  • SFX Magazine

Review by Michelle Sagara (Michelle West) for Quill & Quire

History sometimes seems too small a smithy for Guy Gavriel Kay, but it’s the fire in the forge of which The Lions of Al-Rassan was tempered. Moorish Spain is the inspiration for Al-Rassan, a land of city states ruled by Asharite kings. Bordered by the Jaddite kingdoms, and forced to pay tribute to them, these cities are nonetheless places in which the adherents of three faiths – Asharite, Jaddite, and the Kindath – live in relative peace.

Rodrigo Belmonte is the Captain of the finest cavalry company in the Jaddite kingdoms, Ammar ibn Khairan, poet and assassin, is the advisor to the self-styled Lion of Al-Rassan, King Almalik of Cartada. Betrayed by Almalik, he returns that favour with the help of the crown prince, only to find himself exiled from Cartada and the court that he almost controlled. These two meet in the court of King Badir of Ragosa, under the watchful eye of Mazur ben Avren, the king’s Kindath counselor. For Rodrigo and Ammar, there is an instant recognition, a sense of kinship – and more – that goes beyond what either man has ever known. The entire novel hinges on this moment. There are few writers who could pull it off without being cloying or insincere, but Kay is the master of making a significant moment at once larger than life and yet completely human.

Jehane bet Ishak is a Kindath physician, a woman of healing in a land of war; she is not a bridge between the men, but companion to them, and she learns to love them both in a fashion, perhaps seeing in their friendship the possibilities inherent in men unified by personal greatness, where lesser men would be sepoarated by religion and the scars of old wars.

But the Kindath history is not the history of the Asharites or the Jaddites and in the end, neither Ammar or Rodrigo can ignore their respective faiths; they might dream of it, but they are men of power, and power has its price. It’s a price that Kay makes us all feel by the end. Lions captures that sense of the last, late blooming of a desert flower. The possibilities of civilization developed at the height of the great cities are echoed bitterly by their fall.

Kay doesn’t waste a word or a scene; there is no self-indulgent bloating here. Darker in tone than his previous work, it nevertheless has that certain spark – that almost Shakespearean ability to work with human archetype – that makes Kay’s literary voice so distinctive. It’s the best book I’ve read so far this year, and it won’t greatly surprise me in nothing comes along to supersede it. In scope and depth, there are very few writers to attempt what Kay attempts, and even fewer who succeed where Kay succeeds.

Review by Doug Barbour, for The Edmonton Journal

Canada’s master of high fantasy, Guy Gavriel Kay, has returned with another powerful novel of people, races, religions, and countries caught up in change and conflict. The Lions of Al-Rassan has all the qualities of adventure, passion, political skullduggery, complex representation of cultural and early technological practices, and psychological insight that readers have come to expect of Kay’s fiction. Yet it is perhaps most fascinating for the ways in which it utterly resists the narrative temptations of most fantasies today, replacing them with what I can only call an epic vision rooted firmly in a realist sense of character.

The Lions of Al-Rassan is an historical epic set in another world. It is a world strangely analogical to yet distanced from that of eleventh century Spain, when the Moors were slowly losing their hold over the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula. In his usual fashion, Kay has taken elements from history and translated them into an invented world, whose major sign of difference is its two moons, one white, one blue, which play such a subtle part in the imaginations and emotions of all who live beneath them. Thus, without having to introduce any special “magic,” Kay has created a world with a history of its own, out of which the conflicts that rage across this narrative ‘naturally’ emerge. It is a sign of the quality of Kay’s invention that he can create such a rich cultural schema as that of The Lions of Al-Rassan. Sometime in the past, during a centuries-long jihad, the Asharites, worshippers of the god of the stars above their original desert home, had swept into the peninsula. There they created a Khalifate of many glittering cities. To the north, the Jaddites, worshippers of the single god of the Sun, await their chance to reclaim these lands. They are, however, undermined by internecine warfare among the many principalities. Moving among both peoples, never fully at home anywhere and always first to be scapegoated, are the Kindath, famous for their scientific knowledge, especially of medicine. As the Khalifate begins to wane, a number of figures from each ‘race’ come together in love and war; and in their interactions the epic and sometimes tragic dance of change plays itself out in this intricate and moving novel.

Although Kay’s interest in the relations between personal (sexual) politics and cultural, economic and religious politics continues from novel to novel, he does not repeat himself. Tigana was the story of a group of revolutionaries and the powerful emperor against whom they plotted. A Song for Arbonne was a narrative of violent war between two different religious states, as well as a study of the growth of a young man destined to lead them both in peace. The Lions of Al-Rassan has its own dynamic, as it explores the complex interactions of disparate people caught up in the battles for supremacy among the Jaddite princes and the last Asharite kings in Al-Rassan.

Kay has never written conventional fantasies, and has followed what looks like a deliberate strategy of development in the religious sphere from Tigana to A Song for Arbonne, and then to The Lions of Al-Rassan. If Tigana is still a high fantasy in which magic and the gods can play a role in the narrative, A Song for Arbonne is an historical fantasy where god and goddess no longer directly interfere in the historical narrative of battles between their believers, and what may appear as magic to the credulous can nevertheless be explained away as psychological manipulation. The Lions of Al-Rassan moves even further away from conventional fantasy: there are worshippers in all three religions, but while they may have faith they can never see the works of those they worship. There are priesthoods, but they seek worldly power, and there are most certainly zealots–these are represented as the most dangerous, even evil, people of all in their righteous disregard for the humanity of those who do not believe as they do–but the world in which they act is a mundane one in which realpolitik reigns supreme.

Kay’s heroes are those whose integrity lets them not only see the humanity of those who are different, but even come to love them. Jehane, the Kindrath doctor who enters into complex relationships with both a Jaddite and an Asharite; young Alvar, who begins as a true believing Jaddite, but through his travels, often with Jehane and others, widens his mental and emotional horizons until he can eventually even change faiths; the two striking men whom Jehane cares so much for, both superior warriors, but also men of cultural wealth and understanding: these clearly represent the best human possibilities in a world torn apart by racial warfare and religious turmoil.

Guy Gavriel Kay has a terrific sense of fictional architectu
re: the overarching plan of the whole narrative is grand but not grandiose, complex but not needlessly complicated; yet individual scenes have a brilliant life of their own. There are any number of dramatic moments in this story, which readers will return to for renewed pleasure. Some are highly intimate, some epic in their fierceness. One of Kay’s great talents–and it is one that sets him apart from so many genre fantasists–is his ability to settle the sexual lives of his characters in their cultural, political, and religious contexts. But, in fact, he creates interestingly rounded characters precisely by implying all the social, as well as psychological, baggage they carry into every situation. That he has a fine sense of how social comedy occurs at different social levels also lends credibility to many scenes of both high and low society.

The Lions of Al-Rassan is an entertaining, sensitive and dramatic, epic novel. It should appeal to an audience far wider than just fantasy fans. Except for the, not unimportant, fact that the world in which these characters live out their tangled lives during a period of traumatic political and social change is specifically invented, it could be considered a fine historical novel. I think it is the more interesting for its invention of another world, for that allows for the creation of a narrative true unto itself alone. That such a narrative can be profoundly moving, and speak to our common humanity in the starkest terms, is testament to the generosity of spirit that moves through The Lions of Al-Rassan.

History with a Fantasy Spin

Reviewed by John H. Riskind, for The Washington Post Book World
John H Riskind is a professor of psychology at George Mason University. Reprinted with permission of reviewer.

Those who seek lyrically beautiful fiction that is both deeply moving and psychologically complex should find Guy Gavriel Kay’s work highly satisfying. His fantasy novels are hidden treasures that, in the guise of genre fiction, will appeal widely to readers who love well-wrought stories like the superlative historical novels of Dorothy Dunnett, the fusion of history and myth in the novels of Mary Renault, or those set in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Kay’s work offers a unique fantasy world, one with the ambience and sense of place of a fine historical novel yet one that also mirrors the human complexity, loyalties and conflicts – and human evils – of our own. This unusual vein of history with a fantasy spin helps Kay to detach readers from their own cultural prejudices, and makes his story themes all the more universal.

The Lions of Al-Rassan is set in a mystical, medieval Spain -Al-Rassan- analogous to a time when Moslems, Christians and Jews shared the land. In Kay’s story the “evil” that must be fought is not a Sauron-like figure of evil, as in Tolkien, or a dragon but fanaticism and intolerance. The novel is wonderfully moving and demonstrates the power of fantasy to speak to a wide audience about the real evils of real life. As in Kay’s other recent novels, the supernatural or fantastic is subdued and relatively subtle, merely providing a backdrop.

Th book is a passionate call for tolerance, for “openings between worlds.” Characters from three different peoples, inclduing warriors, poets, physicians and merchants, are drawn together by bonds of love and respect, as well as by chance, then driven apart by intolerance and the senselessness of war. A soldier named Alvar hears “the sheer grandeur” of his king’s vision: a reconquest of the “wide peninsula” of Esperana. “Alvar longed to be a part of this, to see it come to be, to ride his own horse into those oceans and up that mountain with his king. Yet, even as his heart heard this call to glory, he was aware of slaughter embedded in the sweep of the king’s dream, or swooping above it like the carrion birds that followerd the battlefields of men.”

The sense of conflict that drives Guy Kays’ works has evolved from his earliest novels. In the Fionavar Tapestry series, set in a Tolkien-like world, conflict derives from the struggle against a supernatural evil. In his later books, that struggle is directed toward increasingly more human characters. Brandin, the tyrant-invader in Kay’s international bestseller, Tigana, was complex, almost sympathetic. In The Lions of Al-Rassan the struggle is between art, love and other positive values and the human bent towards fanaticism and intolerance. In these works, Kay shows, yet again, that fantasy dosn’t need one-dimensional supernatural evils.

Some current fantasy writers forget that Tolkien’s main heroes were smaller-than-life figures made all the more heroic by their choices. As Kay shows, the more satisfying forms of fantasy not only tell a good story, they also help us to see ourselves and the world in a new way. Kay’s artistic vision embraces the finer nobler aspects of life, such as the desire to heal, as well as the most severe evils of the ordinary world. This increased awareness may grant us the heart and desire to battle, even overcome, these evils.

“In Al-Rassan, in Esperana, Ferrieres, Karch, Batiara-even, in time, in the far off eastern homelands of the Asharites-what happened that night in a burning hamlet near Fezana became legend, told so often among physicians, courts, military companies, in universities, taverns, places of worship, that it became imbued with the aura of magic and the supernatural.” “Sightless, unable to communicate except through his wife who understood every mangled syllable he spoke, handling a surgeon’s blades and implements for the first time since his blinding, working by touch and memory and instinct, ben Yonannon did something even Galinus had only hinted might possibly be done.”

Like Dorothy Dunnett, the magnificent Scots writer of historical novels that sparkle and amaze with wit and intelligence, Guy Kay creates complex psychological characters and a rich sense of ambience, place and time. As in Dunnett’s work, some of Kay’s protagonists are often figures of glittering intelligence and artistic achievement, as well as proficient in the arts of war. But Kay has also found inspiration in mainstream writers, such as Milan Kundera, particularly in his early fiction, which depicts the psychological impact of totalitarianism on even the most private of human experiences. In Kay’s masterpiece so far, Tigana, this theme is translated into an Italianate world where the very name and memory of a land and its people have been stripped away by the sorcery of a totalitarian conqueror. Only a small group of people is even aware that Tigana ever existed, and they hope to bring it back to life by overthrowing th tyrant-sorcerer who has destroyed it and killed their parents.

Kay’s fiction is resonant and powerful, almost impossible to put down, satisfying the reader on multiple levels. Books like The Lions of Al-Rassan or Tigana are hard to pigeonhole as “fantasy” because they offer fast-paced adventure, psychological and even historical insight, and evocative and even poetic writing that carries a powerful universal appeal.

Review by Rob Kilheffer for Fantasy & Science-Fiction Magazine

It’s been some time since I found much of interest in the run of fantasy novels, the flood of work by the self-appointed heirs of J.R.R. Tolkien, the multi-volume epics full of dragons and wizards and elves and magic amulets. Don’t get me wrong: I loved The Lord of the Rings as much as anyone else, and I devoured my share of imitations, looking for the same thrill, but after the first four or five derivative trilogies, I found I had lost my taste for ersatz medieval settings, second- or third-hand mythic influences, and less and less evocative prose. In the last few years it’s gotten to the point where I’ve found more interesting “fantasy” novels published outside the genre than within.

But all along I’ve figured I must be missing something, that there must be some novels publis
hed as genre fantasy that bypass the enervated Tolkien tradition in favor of something a bit different, and I’ve discovered that I was right. Guy Gavriel Kay is doing something different, something that no other writer (to my knowledge) at the moment is attempting, and it’s restored my faith in the possibilities of genre fantasy.

In Tigana (1990) and A Song for Arbonne (1992), Kay developed a unique hybrid of fantasy and historical fiction, in which he models a fantasy world more or less closely on recognizable historical places and times (in Tigana it was a vaguer blend of Arthurian elements with an atmosphere reminiscent of Renaissance Italy, and in A Song for Arbonne it was more specifically the culture of the Provençal troubadors). His latest, The Lions of Al-Rassan, carries this form further yet: Al-Rassan is quite clearly derived from the unformed Spain of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a land of minor kingdoms, some ruled by Islamic (“Asharite”) princes and others by Christians (“Jaddites”); Kay’s plot centers on the developing conflicts between the declining Asharite city-states and the rising Jaddite kingdoms of the north; one of his primary characters, Rodrigo Belmonte, bears unmistakable resemblance to the Spanish national hero El Cid. The “Kindath” are this world’s Jews, even in their chosen colors (blue and white), their unquiet position as semi-citizens among both the Asharites and the Jaddites, and the pogroms that strike their settlements as extremist impulses drive the interfaith conflict to its inevitable head. But for a few details — this world, for example, like those of Tigana and A Song for Arbonne, has two moons — and for some significant compression of real historical events into a much shorter time frame, The Lions of Al-Rassan might almost be an historical novel. But it’s not, and that (as Robert Frost might have it) makes all the difference.

I’m the kind of reader who finds inaccuracies in historical novels very irritating — they can make or break it for me. I’m not overzealous about it: I’m willing to forego strict accuracy in favor of a good story, much of the time; but when it seems that the author isn’t aware of the errors, or has taken a cavalier attitude toward the issue of accuracy altogether, it puts me off. So from the start I found myself checking The Lions of Al-Rassan for accuracy: in the tone of the prose, the characterization of its people, the plausibility of its plot, and so forth. And I quickly realized that, by transferring the story to a fantasy world, however closely modeled on an historical reality, Kay was blunting the edge of my nitpicker’s sword. What is “accurate” in a world that never existed?

For instance, the character of Jehane, a female Kindath physician, might have bothered me in a purely historical novel: she brings a very modern attitude to bear in most of her dealings — she’s fiercely independent, uncowed in the presence of male power, free to travel nearly alone from city to city, and so on. Not an impossibility in the 11th or 12th century, but it would take a lot more work to make her convincing in an historical context. Here, in Al-Rassan, I’m more willing to suspend my disbelief, give Kay the benefit of the doubt, go with the flow. In some cases, Kay uses this greater leeway for some delightful touches: at one point, a servant offers hot drinks of chocolate — which in our world would not have been available in the 12th century (brought back as it was from Mexico in the 16th); here it feels right, and we’re very willing to smile and grant Kay the anachronism, grateful that the fantasy setting makes such an element possible. Similarly, one exchange among Rodrigo Belmonte, Ammar ibn Khairan (the Asharite hero), and Jehane has all the élan and humor of a good 1940s comedy, something with Cary Grant, and though that would hardly fit in a real medieval setting, it’s too much fun to wish it gone from Al-Rassan. But there are also times when Kay lets himself carry the implausibilities too far, such as when, early on, he introduces us to a camp of prostitutes outside the walls of Jehane’s city, telling us that Jehane finds them “better company than almost anyone she knew in the city.” The cliché of the virtuous whores is so creaky as to be laughable, and for the plot’s purposes they need not be so romanticized; they could have been pleasantly rough-edged, grittier and maybe a little meaner, and the scene could have gone along just as well.

One of the pleasures of historical fiction is the opportunity it offers to expose ourselves to different cultural perspectives and value systems, and that’s something that Kay loses for the most part in his fantasy world, choosing instead to introduce a much more contemporary viewpoint into his story. Jehane isn’t the only character who seems more modern than medieval here. The contemporary outlook also leads to some trouble with the tone of Kay’s prose — on the very first page, in an otherwise beautifully written opening scene, he says of some guards: “They had been dealt with,” a line with a distinctly contemporary feel. Such sour notes intrude not often, but consistently; one character later on says, ” ‘I guess it was a dream,’ ” and Kay writes, “It occurred to Jehane just about then,” and so on. Most of the time Kay has the tone down well, but every now and then his ear is a little off.

And yet, for all the liberties he takes and for the occasional irritating intrusion of contemporaneity, The Lions of Al-Rassan also features some lovely scenes that accurately evoke the feel and character of the medieval world. At one point one of the Jaddite rulers, King Ramiro, must resolve a bitter conflict between Rodrigo and the scion of another clan, and he uses the opportunity to gather to himself and the monarchy some powers not previously identified with the office; he’s in the process of converting his role from that of petty warlord to that of stately monarch, and he’s using all the methods that actual kings of the 11th and 12th century were using, including a reliance on written law and formal court hearings, general taxation, building projects, and so forth. The scene is a wonderful depiction of that process, both in the imaginary Al-Rassan and in our own world. On a smaller level, at another point, we see the characteristic mangling of Arabic (Asharite) names in the mouths of Europeans (Jaddites): they pronounce the name “ibn Musa” as “Abenmuza,” just as in our world Europeans turned the name of the famous Muslim scholar ibn Sina into “Avicenna,” as he is still known in the West today.

Of course there’s more to The Lions of Al-Rassan than questions of historical fidelity. Kay spins a truly exciting and intriguing story from his real and fantastical elements, and the historical resonances add texture and depth to the work without ever intruding too strongly for the tale to keep moving. We view events through the perspectives of several characters, mainly Rodrigo, Ammar, Jehane, and one of Rodrigo’s soldiers, Alvar, but we also dip into the thoughts of King Ramiro, the Asharite prince Amalik II, the Muwardi chieftain Yazir ibn Q’arif, and several others along the way. Kay handles these multiple viewpoints skilfully, and uses them well to add complexity to the world and the plot. During a particularly bloody battle scene, for instance, we view events through the eyes of young Alvar, who’s trying to adapt his romantic notions to the realities of combat; those of Jehane, who’s used as part of a trap; those of Count Nino di Carrera, a Jaddite whose forces are ambushed; and those of Idar ibn Tarif, one of the sons of the bandit chief orchestrating the raid. Though Alvar and Jehane command our greatest sympathy, Kay portrays each view with compassion, and prevents the scene from ever resolving into a good vs. evil simplicity — we feel something for all the combatants, feel the tragedy of the situation that has brought them all into conflict, wish for a more peace
ful solution. Throughout the book Kay is careful to portray violence and its repercussions with a realistic eye; there are no disposable people here, fodder for the swords of the heroes. Jehane muses: “perhaps Rodrigo was good at what he did because he knew the price exacted by the deeds of soldiers at war?” Kay never lets us forget that price, and this elevates The Lions of Al-Rassan above the level of the many more childish fantasies in which the dead don’t bleed and the living don’t grieve.

There are times, however, when Kay’s narrative techniques become too obvious, the author’s hand too visible, and we feel manipulated rather than intrigued. One ploy he’s overly fond of involves withholding information from the reader longer than might seem natural, in order to heighten the suspense and the surprise — who is it that lies dead in the street? what happened to Jehane’s father to shock him into years of silence? and so on. Too often this technique becomes more manipulative than entertaining, and we wish he’d just spill the beans and get on with things. But other times Kay’s narrative ploys work very effectively: for instance, at one point he builds up to a show-duel between Rodrigo and Ammar on one side and five men on the other, and though the experience of fighting side-by-side has a powerful effect on the men, binding them with an almost mystical mutual respect, and has repercussions echoing throughout the rest of the book, Kay never actually shows us the battle. He leaves it off-stage, allowing us to glean what we know of it from scattered offhand references thereafter, and here it works as well as any magician’s misdirection — by so conspicuously leaving the action out, Kay draws the reader’s attention all the more strongly to the event, perhaps more effectively than he ever could have done by showing it entire. (It’s also true that Kay seems much more interested in and comfortable with verbal duels than swordplay; he’s exceedingly adept at staging taut verbal exchanges, from courtly politicking to flirtatious innuendo, so perhaps he’s chosen to play his strength in this case, as well.)

One final benefit Kay gets by adopting a fantasy setting rather than a strictly historical one is that we don’t know how the story will turn out in the end. In a typical historical novel — Judith Tarr’s Lord of the Two Lands, for instance — we know what’s going to happen, at least on the largest scale: we know Alexander the Great is going to die young, we know the North will beat the South, we know the Nazis will lose. Though in our world the Christians ended up evicting the Muslims and the Jews from Spain by the end of the 15th century, in Al-Rassan we can’t be so sure of the outcome, and this adds another dimension of poignance to Kay’s tale: we can entertain a faint hope that in this world another solution will be found, and people with differences (be they religious, political, or otherwise) can find a way to coexist. As holy war looms, we can still pray for deliverance.

And that, I think, is the secret of Kay’s success. Whenever it seems he’s taking the story in a particular direction — when he’s adopting a scenario that seems like a cliché, or twisting the plot in what looks like a predictable direction — often enough he carries it off in another direction altogether, surprising us, and making The Lions of Al-Rassan not only more engaging to read, but more complex and thoughtful as well. If this were all he gained from transferring his action to a fantasy world, that would be excuse enough. As it is, he makes much more of it than that, and delivers a distinctive fantasy novel that is certainly not just the same old thing.

(Copyright © 1995 by Mercury Press. All Rights Reserved.)

Review by Dave Langford, for SFX Magazine.

You can rely on Guy Gavriel Kay to produce something rather special. This hefty volume isn’t a conventional fantasy (though one character has clairvoyant flashes), nor is it volume one of a trilogy. It’s a rich unhistorical romance set in an alternative mediaeval Spain which has been rearranged to escape the straitjacket of history as we know it. And it’s an utterly compulsive read.

The land of Al-Rassan is the southern half of the Spanish peninsula, long ago conquered by the desert tribes of alternative Africa, and now fallen into decay since the glory days of the Khalifs — the last of whom is assassinated in the prologue. In northern realms, kings pay lip service to the Jaddite religion, whose priests are very keen on crusades and nailing infidels to pieces of wood (sounds familiar?). War is inevitable. This is the story of the end of Al-Rassan.

Or rather, it’s the story of a number of highly focussed, credible and sympathetic characters whose shifting loyalties and passions interlock, and whose survival we come to care about … especially Jehane, the female Kindath (i.e. Jewish) healer whose concern for a patient sets the whole intricate plot in motion. We care about these people because Kay does, too. His attention is always on individuals: instead of lapsing into those prolonged, generalized battle scenes so common in fantasy, he indicates the horror of war and tyranny in short, sharp scenes of atrocity.

There is humour here too, and clever strategy, and effective depictions of love and companionship. Something not quite expected is always happening. One near-miraculous escape from death hovers on the brink of wish-fulfilment, but there’s no fudging of the book’s final dilemma — in which two supreme warriors, Ser Rodrigo Belmonte from the north and Ammar ibn Khairan of Al-Rassan, whose epic friendship and exploits have already filled many pages, find themselves on opposite sides and compelled to fight to the death while a wife and lover look on. Here Kay prolongs the suspense almost to screaming point … and has a last surprise up his sleeve.

Read it.

Copyright (c), Dave Langford, 1995. All Rights Reserved.

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