Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Book Review: The Lions of Al-Rassan

Title: The Lions of Al-Rassan 
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Year Published: 1995
Genre: Historical fantasy

I was desperate for a standalone historical fantasy set somewhere other than in ye olde generic medieval European village, and I picked this one up on the basis it was set in an analogue of Islamic Iberia. Knowing nothing about the author, I could only hope that the book did its setting justice. Not one chapter in, I knew I’d made the right choice when I stumbled upon the words “urine flask”.

Full of rich and evocative detail, The Lions of Al-Rassan is a sweeping epic about the lands of Al-Rassan and (former) Esperaña. The Asharites, who conquered the peninsula in years past, have splintered after the fall of the khalifate, and the once united Al-Rassan is now a collection of warring city-states. In the north, three Jaddite kingdoms have emerged after Al-Rassan’s decline. Of Al-Rassan’s petty kings, King Almalik of Cartada is on the rise, and this stirs tensions throughout the entire region. It is in this volatile environment that our story begins.

To describe the plot would be to spoil the novel – even the events of the blurb don’t happen until a good way into the book – so I will only say that it involves political manoeuvrings both at court and on the battlefield. Kay moves masterfully between matters of state and matters of the heart, allowing you to follow the broader history of Al-Rassan as well as the personal journey of its protagonists. There are battles, quiet family moments, verbal smack-downs and daring escapes. The balance between all these different elements is done so well, the transitions so natural, that it’s all a joy to read. Overlaying all of this is an almost painful sense of poignancy. The transience of power and greatness is a recurring theme. The fall of an empire is mourned even as it is celebrated and wars are inescapable even before they begin. In my opinion, this exploration of war, politics and human nature is really what sets The Lions of Al-Rassan apart from your typical fantasy novel.

The book features a large cast of colourful characters, though the story largely revolves around three. The first is Jehane bet Ishak, a Kindath physician and owner of the aforementioned urine flask. As a “neutral” and relatively apolitical figure, we are introduced to the Asharite/Jaddite conflict through her eyes. The others are the legendary assassin/poet/diplomat Ammar ibn Khairan of Cartada and renowned military leader Rodrigo Belmonte of Jaddite Valledo. Our trio develop deep friendships in a time of unrest, and one of the most interesting aspects of the book was how their personal, religious and political affiliations influenced their relationships and vice versa. As I feared, however, a dreaded love triangle did emerge – though thankfully not as the focus of the novel.

All three are improbably super special awesome and yet, shockingly, remain likeable. In fact, so many people in this book are so super special awesome that it beggars belief. Despite this, I found it hard to dislike most of the characters in the book. Kay allows you to relate to those on different sides of the conflict and I believe that this help balances out the Sue-ness to some degree.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, I’d recommend The Lions of Al-Rassan to you with reservations. There are barely any fantasy elements in this story, with the closest thing to “magic” being a boy’s (rarely used) psychic abilities. The focus, rather, is on politics and people and a world that is ours but not. Kay draws heavily from Spanish history but refuses to be bound by things mundane as ‘facts’. It’s fantasy after all, and Kay has been able to pick and choose all his favourite bits and shape them into whatever story he wants. However, being so close to history, Kay’s Al-Rassan may seem overly simplistic. For example, the Asharites, Jaddites and Kindath are quite overtly analogues of Muslims, Christians and Jews. The relationship between these three groups is surprisingly complex and layered – when compared to other fantasy worlds – yet as soon as we compare these dynamics to real life it feels like history-lite. Adding to this historically superficial feeling is the sizeable number of tropes and clichés (action girls, a masked carnival, prostitutes with hearts of gold) as well as the improbably advanced state of medical knowledge evinced throughout. Similarly, some of the characters – particularly the women – and their interactions and values feel very, very modern. Again, this is fine if you read the book as a fantasy, but it sort of falls apart if you’re trying to picture an historically sound 11th century Spain.

The writing itself is very descriptive, drawing a rich picture of Al-Rassan’s sumptuous palaces, lively cities and crowded markets – which, funnily enough, are a refreshing change from ye olde forests and castle towns. At the very beginning, all the various terms, characters and historical references might feel overwhelming, but it gets a lot easier once you become familiar Kay’s world. The writing style is a little on the dense side, and the author seems to like telling us about some event upfront, then going back and describing how things got to be there. For this reason, I found it easy to put down the book at times – I enjoyed the read, but didn’t always feel compelled to read on.

The Lions of Al-Rassan wormed its way into my affections very quickly. I really loved reading about an Islamic-influenced world and I was also glad at how richly that world was developed. Further, the story and its characters are vibrant, and this, in addition to all your favourite tropes, lends some fun to what otherwise could have been a dry and serious piece of historical fiction. Granted, the cheesy bits made me roll my eyes at times, but being in the perfect mood for this, I found myself charmed overall. There is a lovely, bittersweet mood that suffuses the book. Despite seemingly endless warfare, Kay paints a vision where the common bond of humanity offers hope for the future. If you’re after something different from the usual fantasy fare, definitely give this one a try.

Alex’s Rating: 4.5/5

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