Guy Gavriel Kay,
The Lions of Al-Rassan
(HarperCollins, 1995)

Guy Gavriel Kay once again draws his reader into a fascinating world of intrigue, emotion and ideals in The Lions of Al-Rassan. Readers already familiar with his work should be equally entranced with this epic and elegiac tale; those new come to the state of grace imbued by reading Kay's fiction should become happily addicted to his storytelling. Although readers able to distance themselves from the intricate characterisation inherent in Kay's stories may discern a slowly changing pattern from The Fionavar Tapestry progressing through Tigana and Song for Arbonne to Al-Rassan; the new reader should not be discouraged from beginning the journey with this book.

The setting is a fantasy world, which serves to free Kay from the constraints of detailed historical accuracy, while allowing him to flavour the tale with his usual gripping interpretations of actual events and penetrating descriptions until the reader truly believes they are basking and shivering in his weather, feeling the water in the fountains and hearing the voices of the people. The historical inferences to medieval Spain may attract those sceptical of the fantasy genre, and Kay has deliberately limited the fey occurrances in this novel to one young boy blessed and cursed with prescience.

As with all of Kay's books, his characters are gems, meticulously layered, with all of humanity's flawed facets, hypnotising depths and attractive polish and sparkle. The main protagonists assume an immediacy of being, bringing them alive and allowing the reader to share more intimately in their hopes, joys, divided loves and loyalties, humour and sorrows.

The Lions of Al-Rassan focuses on the stirring and disturbing topic of division -- of land, of religious faith, of secular loyalty. Throughout the book the thought-provoking byplay of love and the divisions that emotion causes serve to underline the story and highlight the differences and connections between the characters. The Asharite, Ammar ibn Khairan, a fascinating and complex man, has an unenviable pivotal role. He is not permitted the luxury of complete loyalty to one King nor to his own faith, and he finds in the person of Ser Rodrigo Belmonte, a Jaddite soldier, both his kindred spirit and fate. Like Ammar, Rodrigo is forced into exile as a consequence of personal ideals and honour. With them in that foreign court is the lovely and gifted Kindath doctor, Jehane, whose role is defined by her skill and compassion and complicated by her father's past and her love, on many levels, for her companions.

There are subtleties layered in each character, defying convention, and the story itself swirls and weaves like Arabic lettering in a heat haze. As may be expected in a tale that pits Asharite/Muslim against Jaddite/Christian and Kindath/Jew, this is no panacea; beloved characters suffer the consequences of their acts or of others and the edicts of their faith. There is bloodshed, brutality, murder and death; there is poetry, love, sensuality, wit and rare friendship; there is enmity, fanaticism, betrayal and uncertainty. The men and women appeal to both male and female readers; Jehane is no frilly fainting female, and both she and Rodrigo's wife, Miranda, are (mercifully) stronger of spirit and more fierce in their independence than tradition would normally permit. The soldiers are undeniably strong but their camaraderie is a well- balanced mix of machismo and soul-baring. Rodrigo and Ammar's complex and sometimes overwhelming personalities have traits both endearing and irritating, and Kay's gift of bringing vibrancy and life to both primary and secondary characters literally populates the warring lands.

This may be fantasy, but in life, as in history, you never know who will survive a war. Kay quite justifiably keeps the reader in suspense right through to the end of his story. (Don't spoil it and peek!)

This book can be enjoyed on superficial level, but its echoes of life's triumphs and tragedies will draw you back to immerse yourself deeper each time; to grieve, laugh, rage and above all, live in Al-Rassan with the shadow of the Lions.

A word of advice, before entering any Guy Gavriel Kay book, expect to go without sleep, live on unsuitable food you will hardly taste and out of contact with the real world, deaf to the phone, family and friends, until you've finished traveling in his worlds!

[ by Jenny Ivor ]
Rambles: 9 March 2002

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