The Lions of Al-Rassan
By: Guy Gavriel Kay
Format/Source: eBook; my purchase
The ruling Asharites of Al-Rassan have come from the desert sands, but over centuries, seduced by the sensuous pleasures of their new land, their stern piety has eroded. The Asharite empire has splintered into decadent city-states led by warring petty kings. King Almalik of Cartada is on the ascendancy, aided always by his friend and advisor, the notorious Ammar ibn Khairan — poet, diplomat, soldier — until a summer afternoon of savage brutality changes their relationship forever.
Meanwhile, in the north, the conquered Jaddites’ most celebrated — and feared — military leader, Rodrigo Belmonte, driven into exile, leads his mercenary company south.
In the dangerous lands of Al-Rassan, these two men from different worlds meet and serve — for a time — the same master. Sharing their interwoven fate — and increasingly torn by her feelings — is Jehane, the accomplished court physician, whose own skills play an increasing role as Al-Rassan is swept to the brink of holy war, and beyond.
Hauntingly evocative of medieval Spain, The Lions of Al-Rassan is both a brilliant adventure and a deeply compelling story of love, divided loyalties, and what happens to men and women when hardening beliefs begin to remake — or destroy — a world.
Guy Gavriel Kay is a well-known author in the fantasy genre (and Canadian too, whoo-hoo!). I had started reading his books sometime in grad school (drats that I never reviewed Ysabel or Tigana (especially the latter as it was very interesting and right up my alley in my studies)) but sort of never got back to reading his other books. So yeah, I sort of made it a point to get around to reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s books this year; I bought most of his books a few years ago but they’ve sort of sat on my TBR pile ever since. Oops. But anyway, here I am, first book to read from that pile is The Lios of Al-Rassan, which looks and sounds really cool.
Well, this was certainly a very interesting reading experience. In some respect this is very much a character-driven novel, following the characters of Jehane the physician, Ammar the poet-warrior, Rodrigo the soldier and leader, as they struggle in a world that’s changing out of the old system and into a world with shifting loyalties and numerous factions rising as the power of Al-Rassan wanes. The worldbuilding is absolutely ace, and while it is difficult at times to keep track of which religions/peoples the characters belonged to (I sort of just rolled with it afterwards; it helps), it is very much fleshed out and the reader gains a good sense of what kind of society these characters live in. It’s a brutal world to be sure, but the multiculturalism beneath the growing divisiveness and political changes is nonetheless rich. The shifting political landscape is very interesting and while it is a bit slow the way the various factions are grouping and forming to stand as a credible alternative to Al-Rassan, it’s nonetheless rather steady, and the characters keep me glued in to the story and the drama. In the same vein though, it is pretty hard to separate the history of Moorish Spain from the story; I found myself thinking every now and then how this character is like King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and how this event was like this event in that period, etc.
The characters are all amazing in their own way. I love how awesome Jehane is, she’s brilliant as a physician in her own right (daughter of a very famous physician) and she makes her own decisions. Ammer and Rodrigo are both hardened and capable men who have seen much war and would rather not fight and do other things (Ammer with his poetry and Rodrigo with his family); both of their careers took a strangely similar trajectory, though one is known as a killer of rulers and the other deserves to be a ruler himself for the things he stands for and how he looks out for his men (and did I mention both are charming in their own way?). Funnily enough I was worried that them meeting would result in a titanic clash of opposing forces, which I was partially right (alas), but them teaming up and working together for a time hilariously worked out. Other characters like Miranda, Rodrigo’s beautiful and formidable wife, was awesome in her own way and I wished she had more page time. But the secondary characters also had their own subplots going on that were fairly fleshed out, which was cool.
There were a few things in the story that sort of bogged down the experience. I thought it was getting a bit weird after a while how almost all of the men Jehane comes across fall in love with her or are interested in her (granted, with the unit it was more like familial love, looking out for each other); I mean she’s amazing and everything with her profession and her brilliance, but must two-thirds of the men have some kind of eros inclinationt towards her? The love triangle alone was already getting a little hard to get through. Well, no, okay, I appreciate that Jehane, Ammer, and Rodrigo get along and they make a merry trio and they have their own special connection with one another (and the fact that they are from each of the three major faiths really adds something there), and if life and times weren’t gearing up to a major clash they’d likely hang out for the rest of their lives. But anyway, it was more or less resolved and wasn’t going back and forth so much so it overall wasn’t so bad.
Also, because the scope is so epic in scale and there’s so many factions vying for power and shifting in allegiances, it can be a bit of an info dump at times. It was useful in a way to denote a passage of time between events and parts of the novel, but other times it did get a bit boring and I wanted to go back to the characters and see them handle the situation. That alongside the shifting allegiances and roles just made the book feel a little uneven at times. I’m also not entirely sure how I feel about the ending:
Overall The Lions of Al-Rassan was an interesting read steeped in culture and conflict in a world that’s undergoing massive change. I appreciated the themes of war and loyalty and the devastations that war inflicts on people and families and societies regardless of how involved you are in the halls of power. While the storytelling felt a little uneven at times and some elements of the character interaction a little tiring, it did hold my interest throughout. I look forward to reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s other books soon enough 🙂