by Guy Gavriel Kay
Edition reviewed, Earthlight 2001, ISBN 0-7434-1508-6
The Lions of Al-Rassan is set in an invented world based on Moorish Spain, the story of El Cid, and the Reconquista.
The story takes place in a peninsula divided between two dominant cultures. In the north are the Jaddites, who worship a sun god and are divided into three kingdoms ruled over by two quarrelsome brothers and an uncle. In the south are the Asharites, who worship the stars, and whose territory, Al-Rassan, used to be united under a khalif but is now fragmented into many independent city-states. A third culture, the Kindath, worship the moons (there are two moons in this world) and are strangers in both Asharite and Jaddite lands, tolerated to varying degrees but never fully accepted.
The city-kings in Al-Rassan and the three Jaddite kings in the north all covet each others territories and all try to expand their own power at the expense of weaker neighbours, whether by diplomacy, alliance, outright conquest or the levying of tribute. The stronger kings of each culture harbour dreams of first subduing or absorbing their neighbours and then conquering the lands of the other culture and ruling the whole peninsula. Both cultures have their share of political opportunists, religious zealots and racial bigots. Both cultures also have a few enlightened, tolerant, honourable individuals, and the story centres on four such people.
Rodrigo Belmonte is a Jaddite nobleman and soldier, clearly based on the historical figure of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (otherwise known as El Cid) from medieval Spain.
Ammar ibn Khairan is an Asharite nobleman, a highly cultured poet, soldier, diplomat, assassin and spy.
Jehane bet Ishak is a female Kindath physician living in one of the Al-Rassan city-states.
Alvar de Pellino is a young Jaddite soldier on his first campaign in Rodrigo Belmontes service.
Both Rodrigo Belmonte and Ammar ibn Khairan fall foul of their respective kings, are exiled and take service together in the most highly sophisticated city-state in Al-Rassan. Here they and Alvar come into contact with Jehane. All three men are attracted to Jehane in different ways, and a complex web of personal loyalties and friendships develops betwen the four. Meantime, a combination of religious fanaticism and power politics on both sides of the cultural divide grows into a holy war between Asharite and Jaddite. Caught up in this war, Rodrigo, Ammar, Jehane and Alvar find that the relationships developed in exile draw them into fatal conflict with ethnic loyalties, personal honour and, eventually, each other.
I found this a satisfyingly real and complex world. It is the most convincing fantasy world Ive encountered since Tolkiens Middle Earth, and I can say no higher than that. Despite the complexity of the world, I never felt baffled by strange names and places. Information is introduced, for the most part, as the reader needs to know it, and develops naturally out of the story.
Characterisation is also real and convincing, not only for the four leads but also for many of the secondary characters. Individuals have their own different cultural heritages, personal histories and motivations.
The plot is a rich and complex story, with a sense that everything fits together and happens for a reason. Its a long book (590 pages, I estimate about 200,000 words), but there is a lot going on and there seems to be little if any padding. There are parallels and resonances that I only spotted on a second reading, and I dare say there would be more on a third. There are no easy answers to the conflicts facing the characters, and no obvious choices. I was still thinking, Could he have done that? What would have happened if...? weeks after reading it.
A few things did not work well for me. I found the book hard to get into at first. Theres a Prologue, then the first chapter jumps to a different character in a different place at a different time, with no immediately obvious connection. A similar jump to a different group of characters occurs in the second chapter. There was also a lot of flashback and backstory, so you meet a character in a given place and two sentences later youre being told what he was doing somewhere else three days earlier. By the end of the second chapter it was becoming apparent how these pieces fitted together, but be warned: you have to pay attention. This is not a book thats forgiving of being skimmed.
I also found the style could get excessively oblique at times. There are crucial passages where he or she is used throughout, presumably to build suspense because you arent quite sure exactly who is present or what has just happened. It works as a suspense technique, but Id often find Id have to go back and read the passage again once I knew who he or she was, because Id missed some significant points. Again, you have to pay attention. But if you do concentrate it does become clear; I never found myself drowning in a morass of confusing (and later evidently irrelevant) detail. Concentration is rewarded.
Oh, and despite it being shelved as fantasy, there is no magic. No wizards, druids, priestesses with mysterious powers, dragons, orcs, trolls, elves, supernatural forces, no absolute good or absolute evil. It reads like real history, but in a setting you happen to have no prior knowledge of.
A satisfyingly complex story of contrasting cultures and divided loyalties
in a superbly realised setting.