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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.

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I have no way to adequately express the delight I experienced while reading A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay.  From the first page to the last, it was a book that made me remember how exciting, how entertaining reading can be, how one story can deliver all the adventure, romance and intrigue that have been missing from my recent reading in an intelligent, captivating way.  An introduction in late August to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series reminded me of my youthful passion for fantasy, a genre I’d weaned myself off of over the years though the temptation is always great when I walk past the shelves at the library.  Back when I used to read it, more often than not, I ended up disappointed by so many of the fantasy books I tried.  Fantasy writers as a whole seem to be big on ideas, not always so brilliant with characterization or plotting.  So, being now determined to reintroduce quality fantasy into my reading diet, I knew I had to start with Guy Gavriel Kay, having heard almost universal praise for all his novels.  And I was not disappointed.

Arbonne, where the northern mercenary Blaise finds himself as the novel begins, is an idyllic medieval kingdom centred on the romantic ideals its revered troubadours sing of, that its Court of Love celebrates.  Unlike neighbouring kingdoms, including Blaise’s native Gorhaut, Arbonne values its women, many of whom hold the highest positions of authority, and revolves around a goddess-centric theology.  When the lovers and poets, singers and priestesses of Arbonne find themselves in conflict with the war-bent king of Gorhaut, they seem ill-prepared to face the harsh northern invaders, particularly with Arbonne’s two most powerful nobleman still caught up in a decades-long conflict of their own. 

The book covers four seasons, from spring to winter, from Blaise’s arrival in Arbonne to the final battle between the armies of Gorhaut and Arbonne.  Each section is wonderfully plotted, moving between characters and locations with ease, all sections of equal interest.  There’s nothing worse than having storylines with uneven allure, the kind that always make you want to rush through the boring bits to get on to the characters you do like, but there was none of that here.  I found Blaise’s point of view just as interesting as that of his sister-in-law Rosala or the singer Lisseut.  What’s most impressive about that is that I didn’t even particularly like Lisseut, but I still love her sections.  The characters develop but mostly they do so in a quiet way, without needing to share all their innermost thoughts and struggles with you.  You see their behaviours change: as Blaise takes on unthinkable responsibilities, as Rosala chooses a path that will force the war between two nations, as Lisseut…no, not really sure what happens to Lisseut.  She does a lot of emotional flip-flopping that seems very human, particularly given how emotionally manipulative stressful situations are, but I found it rather irritating.  Still, as a vehicle for delivering plot and insight into other characters, she was extremely valuable and always readable, despite my personal dislike of her. 

The female characters were one of the things I liked best about the novel, though that’s not to say that the male characters weren’t excellent too.  Blaise is a compelling, sympathetic hero, though set in a very predictable hero mould.  His companions, Valery, Rudel, and particularly Bertran, provided just the right level of counsel, moral ambiguity, and comic relief.  But the women really stood out.  Signe, the aging ruler of Arbone whose daughter prompted the feud that has plagued the country for twenty-three years, is a perfect balance of soft and hard, romantic feeling and political cunning.  Ariane, the queen of the Court of Love, is equally intelligent and, what’s more, is presented as someone with is sexually liberated without ever making her appear cheap or manipulative, and is easily able to earn the respect of both her bedmates and the reader.  And then there is Rosala, whose flight from male dominated Gorhaut to Arbonne instigates the war between the two nations.  But she was brave enough to flee, while heavily pregnant, to seek out a new life on her own and then to bear the events that followed. 

War and politics, with a bit of romance and mystery thrown in, this was truly the perfect reading experience for me.  After I finished it, I wandered about the house and the library listlessly, looking for something that could equal it – the inevitable hangover that occurs after finishing a much-enjoyed book.  I already have more of Kay’s books on hold at the library and can’t wait until they come in!

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