I loved The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. I loved it even more than I loved A Song for Arbonne. Admittedly, if anyone had seen me while I was reading the last hundred or so pages, crying my way through them, they might have questioned if it was really love but, for me, it is only the really good stories, the ones that pull me in so completely, the ones with characters and conflicts that engage me intellectually and emotionally, that can make me cry and, in doing so, only make me love the book more.
For me, a huge part of Kay’s appeal is the historical roots of his fantasy novels. Just as A Song for Arbonne examined a fictionalized medieval Languedoc, The Lions of Al-Rassan looks to medieval Spain, when the peninsula was divided between Christian kingdoms in the north and Moorish regions in the south. In Kay’s fantastical interpretation, the Asharites, rulers of the rich, highly cultured, religiously tolerant Al-Rassan represent the Muslims; the Jaddites from the north, slightly rough and skeptical of refined arts, the Christians; and the Kindath, dressed always in white and blue, scholarly and scientific, ghettoized even in Al-Rassan, clearly the Jewish minority. The novel deals with the conflict between these religious groups. As the Jaddites wage a holy war on a weakened Al-Rassan, bent on destroying those of other faiths, the Asharites are forced to look south across the water for support from the desert warriors who share their faith but not their culture of tolerance. In such a bloody war, both victory and defeat are absolute.
At the center of this conflict are our three main characters: Jehane, a female Kindath physican from Al-Rassan, Ammar, an Asharite poet, solider and diplomat, and Rodrigo, a Jaddite military commander. All cultured, educated and well-travelled, they form a devoted if troubled trio, able to look beyond their differing faiths but always conscious that, eventually, their faiths and old allegiances will force them apart, onto opposing sides of the inevitable war.
The story is told from a number of view points but Jehane’s dominates. This has less to do with her personal importance than with the unique perspective she has to Ammar and Rodrigo and their relationship. Constantly with them, the reader sees through her eyes their first fateful meeting and the close friendship that follows. Both unusually skilled and knowledgeable in the ways of politics and war, they are always planning well ahead of anything Jehane could have anticipated, always perfectly in step with one another. Kay is heavy handed with his foreshadowing here and from the (heavily dramatized) moment Ammar and Rodrigo meet it is clear how it must end but that does not make their conclusion any easier to bear, not after having followed their adventures and their friendship for hundreds of pages. Hence the crying.
As much as I came to respect Jehane and to admire both Rodrigo and Ammar, it was another member of their company, the youngest with the most to learn, the solider Alvar who was the most intriguing character for me. The others are all extraordinarily tolerant of the unfamiliar and of those of other faiths because their past experiences have exposed them to other peoples and other cultures. But twenty-year old Alvar, raised by a religious Jaddite mother, initially shares the prejudices of his fellow northerners. As he comes to know and love Kindaths and Asharites, he still retains his old loyalties but is conflicted even as he is thrilled by King Ramiro’s vision of the entire peninsula united under a Jaddite ruler. As a soldier, he now knows what the human cost will be, and, as a tolerant man of the world, he now knows the ‘unbelievers’ who will die are innocent of the crimes his faith would charge them of. Alvar’s fate is revealed in the epilogue and, though it is not the great one he once seemed fated for as the protégée of Rodrigo, it makes a great amount of sense given how events unfolded.
As in A Song for Arbonne, with its focus on troubadours, Kay uses poems throughout the book, generally presented as the creations of thoughtful Asharites, frequently Ammar. They are quite beautiful and I was interested to read Kay’s note in his acknowledgements about those whose works inspired him: al-Mu’tamid, ar-Rundi, ibn ‘Ammar and ibn Bassam. Their names mean nothing to me now but I love knowing where to turn if I want more information. I am always so pleased when authors give any insight into their research process, especially when it is a topic so completely foreign to me (and medieval Islamic poetry of the Iberian peninsula certainly counts as foreign).
I am certain that my poor knowledge of Spanish history made me oblivious to some of Kay’s careful parallels but ignorance in no way impaired my enjoyment of this book. Because Kay writes fantasy rather than fact-based historical fiction, his books are able to stand on their own and always provide sufficient explanations about the politics and history at the heart of his stories.
I found this to be a thrilling and complex tale of personal loyalties tested in extraordinary times. It is quite miraculous how – rare for fantasy writers – Kay is able to balance the opposing forces, keeping the reader’s loyalties divided between Al-Rassan and Esperaña, never certain which we hope will prevail. Each is equally flawed, equally alluring, just like Ammar and Rodrigo, the men who represent them.