A TALE OF POLITICAL INTRIGUE AND RELIGIOUS STRIFE
IN A LAND RIVEN BY BITTER INTERNAL DIVISIONS, THE END OF AN ERA AS CLOSE AT HAND FOR A ONCE GREAT EMPIRE IN TERMINAL DECLINE
Guy Gavriel Kay
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Format: Paperback, 656 Pages
Date: 15th March 2012 (First Published 1995)
Originally published in 1995, The Lions Of Al-Rassan, by Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay, is a tale of political intrigue, alliances of convenience, shifting allegiances, and unlikely friendships in a land, fractured by bitter religious divisions, on the brink of a seismic historical change. Though set in a fictional world, the novel is essentially a fantasy re-telling of real world historical events.
The power of the Asharites, the stars worshipping rulers of the peninsula of Al-Rassan, has declined as their religious observance has diminished. The sun worshipping Jaddites, the former rulers of the peninsula they call Esperaña, sense an opportunity, after centuries of “infidel” rule, to exploit this weakness and break out of their northern confines to reclaim the whole peninsula; if only they can set aside their long standing internal divisions. Caught between these communities are the two moons worshipping Kindath, a persecuted minority hated by the Asharites and Jaddites, alike.
When an author decides to base a story on real historical events, in this case the beginning of the end of Islamic rule in the Iberian peninsula, there is little that can be done to keep readers guessing about where the plot is going. The narrative inevitably has to follow a predictable course, so there is little scope for unexpected twists to take readers by surprise.
In this situation it becomes necessary to create compelling characters to hold the interest of readers, and drive the story forward. In this regard, author, Kay, is an unqualified success, as The Lions Of Al-Rassan is very much a character driven affair, teeming with great characters and great characterisation. I can honestly say I have never read a book with so many unforgettable characters.
First and foremost are the three protagonists, one from each religious community; Rodrigo Belmonte a revered Jaddite military leader, known as “The Scourge Of Al-Rassan”; Ammar ibn Khairan an Asharite nobleman famous for his poetry, and infamous for slaying the last Khalif of Al-Rassan; and Jehane bet Ishak, a headstrong and courageous female physician from the Kindath community. While Rodrigo and Ammar are clearly based on real historical figures, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar and Ibn Ammar, respectively, Jehane bears an uncanny “resemblance” to Rebecca of York, from Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Ivanhoe.
Truth be told, the great characterisation on display, is by no means limited to the three protagonists. There is a host of memorable characters, and the principle reason why they shine is that they are depicted as real people. There are no caricatures on show, no one is portrayed as being a villain or a hero. The actions of the various players, whether ethical or unethical, are not done just for the sake of it. There are clear motivations behind their acts, whether it be self-interest, the advancement of an agenda, a desire to do the right thing, or simply the need to do what is deemed to be necessary at the time.
Perhaps the best illustration of this point comes courtesy of my favourite character, Miranda Belmonte, the delightfully stern wife of Rodrigo. Miranda unceremoniously executes a Jaddite nobleman who lead an unsuccessful attack on her family home, even though he had surrendered. Any concern she had about killing a fellow Jaddite so closely linked to her King, was outweighed by her conviction that such an unscrupulous man, who had intended to rape her and murder her two sons, was not entitled to the mercy he expected to receive.
As a testament to the strength of the characterisation, over the course of the novel’s six hundred, plus, pages, most readers will not notice that not a great deal actually happens, in terms of action. The interactions of the characters remain firmly at the forefront throughout the story, while the events they are living through remain mostly in the background. In fact, I can’t recall ever reading a book in which the main characters do so little to shape the course of events. Much of the time they are merely reacting to situations outside their immediate control. But perhaps this is to be expected, as the sheer scope of what is transpiring is too immense for a handful of individuals to influence in any meaningful way.
While I personally have no complaints about the novel, there is one area where I foresee some potential readers levelling criticisms at The Lions Of Al-Rassan. On the surface, much of the conflict in the story is religious in nature, yet the author doesn’t go into any depth about the beliefs of the three religious groups in his story. Though the Asharites, Jaddites and Kindath are analogous of the Abrahamic religious communities, they don’t have even remotely similar theological beliefs as Muslims, Christians and Jews, respectively. That the Asharites worship the stars, the Jaddites worship the sun, and the Kindath worship the two moons, is the extent of the information given about their religions.
To conclude, it has often been the case, in the past, that when I have read a novel which has garnered so much critical acclaim, I have been left feeling disappointed and unable to understand why the book in question has received so much praise. On this occasion, I can genuinely say that The Lions Of Al-Rassan is very much deserving of all the plaudits it has attained. This is a must read story; one which I wish I had read many years ago. I would not hesitate to recommend it to readers who like their fantasy without the swords and sorcery. I also think fans of historical fiction will love the book too.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.