15 May, 2006

The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay. Book review

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, the Jaddites, who worship a sun god, are divided into three kingdoms ruled over by two quarrelsome brothers and an uncle. In the south, the Asharites, who worship the stars, 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 other’s 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 Belmonte’s 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 I’ve encountered since Tolkien’s 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. It’s 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’m 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. There’s 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 you’re 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 that’s 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 aren’t quite sure exactly who is present or what has just happened. It works as a suspense technique, but I’d often find I’d have to go back and read the passage again once I knew who ‘he’ or ‘she’ was, because I’d 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.

Thank you to Rick and Gabriele for suggesting I try Guy Gavriel Kay, and to Gabriele for recommending this book in particular!

Has anyone else read it?


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Carla, I haven't read this one, but thank you for the review. I've had it on my mental TBR for a while - as in I don't have it in the house but I've been thinking of getting hold of it. Your review has spurred my intention. Several people have recommended Guy Gavriel Kay to me.
Have you read George R.R. Martin's Ice and Fire series? I became hooked on that a few years ago, starting with A Game of Thrones. It's the Wars of the Roses meets The Norman Conquest meets The Mongol Empire meets The Vikings meets.... very well written and a lot more Medieval in feel than many works of straight historical fiction.

Bernita said...

I've read it. I have it.
Oddly enough, it's my least favourite of Kay's books.
Perhaps because of certain inevitabilities, alternative/parallel history or not.
I much prefer Song for Arbonne.

Carla said...

Elizabeth - no, I haven't read any of the Ice and Fire series, but many thanks for the recommendation. Alex mentioned one of them (Book 3, I think) recently and was disappointed with it. I mean to give the series a try some day and see how I get on. It's classed as fantasy - is there magic in it? One of the things I liked about Lions of Al-Rassan was the absence of supernatural forces.

Bernita - this was my first Guy Gavriel Kay so I can't compare with his others. Thanks for recommending Song for Arbonne; I'll try that one next!

Gabriele Campbell said...

Carla, another of Kay's books that may be to your liking is The Last Light of the Sun. I has an Anglo Saxon / Viking / Welsh background.

Contrary to Alex, I like Song of Ice and Fire but as I said in the discussion about Dorothy Dunnett, I don't mind complicated plots and casts of thousands.

But I don't mind a bit of magic, either. If that wasn't a problem for you, I'd reccommend David Gemmell's Rigante series. It has quite a Celtic feel to it, though stilistically, Gemmell doesn't reach the level of Kay's beautiful prose.

Bernita said...

Carla, ALL of Kay's books are worth reading.

Rick said...

It ought to be right down my alley, but for some reason I stalled out in two tries at reading it. I'm not sure why, either. Maybe because I know that Kay is heavily into character abuse; I didn't want to get to like some people, only to have them die horribly.

A Game of Thrones is another book that should be a natural for me, but I stalled on almost immediately, though in this case I know why. It is well summed up in the Stark family motto, "Winter is coming." The tone was so grim and bleak that I decided right away that I didn't want to spend several hundred pages with those people.

Back to Lions, is anyone here familiar with the actual history of the Cid? I've read that the book follows it pretty closely, but I don't know.

A minor grump that had nothing to do with my abandoning the book, but the thing about two moons seemed off. To me (coming from an SF background, perhaps), two moons clearly says "another planet." But the world is clearly a close synologue of Earth, so giving it another moon was kind of jarring. Odd, I know!

Gabriele Campbell said...

I saw it rather as parrallel universe the way some time travel theories do, so the moons didn't bother me.

And yes, GRR Martin is darker than Tolkien.

Carla said...

Gabriele - thanks for that suggestion. I've tried some of David Gemmell's fantasy and found it rather ponderous. I can't remember the titles of his I tried now, though Rigante doesn't sound familiar. My usual problem with multi-volume Epic Fantasy is that it seems to meander on interminably through thousands of words of portentous prose and humourless (or, occasionally, unintentionally humorous) dialogue. A bit Manda-Scott-Boudica-ish, without the New Age feminism. Tony Keen recently recommended Gemmell's take on the Trojan War, Lord of the Silver Bow, and I was going to give that one a try. Have you read it?

Bernita - so people tell me, but I have to start somewhere!

B - I hope you enjoy reading it - let me know what you think.

Rick - how far did you get with Lions before bailing out? It does start slowly and I was having my doubts after a chapter or two, but after that it got better and better. I wouldn't say there's an excessive amount of character abuse in it, no more than one would expect considering there's a war involved. I'd say it's about on a par with your recent comment about your own book over on Bernita's blog, or with my stuff. You don't need to be too worried about getting to like people and then having them all die horribly.

I agree with you about the moons, as it happens. When I realised there were two moons I first thought 'WTF?', and then wondered if this was going to be hard SF and I'd have to keep track of the phases of the damn things because it'd turn out to be a crucial plot hinge on page 430. Fortunately not, so it didn't bother me, but I'm not sure that it added very much. Perhaps the presence of two moons is to hammer home that it isn't Earth, despite being a very close synologue? Perhaps to ensure the book gets shelved in SFF?

I'm not an expert on the history of medieval Spain at all, but from what little I know I think Lions may not be too far from the actual history. El Cid was certainly exiled from the court of Castile and worked as a mercenary for at least one Moorish king before being recalled in a time of military crisis. Though the end of his story in Lions is quite different from the end of the real El Cid - and no, I'm not going to say how, just in case you decide to give the book another try!

On Game of Thrones, a grim and bleak tone would tend to put me off, too. I like some colour and humour and light and life in a story, even if it's gallows humour. One of the things I liked best about Lions was its dry humour. George RR Martin seems to generate very different responses from different people. I shall have to try one of his books myself and make up my own mind.

Rick said...

I got several chapters in, so my stall wasn't due to problems at the very beginning. In fact, I didn't have any real problem at the start. I just ... stalled. For which reason I haven't yet tried the Sarantium books, or The Last Light of the Sun.

But I'm sure glad to see a niche out there for "fantasy" minus the magical elements, since I never care much for them even in conventional fantasies.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Game of Thrones does have some light moments - in fact in places it can be highly amusing. I love the characterisation. However Martin dares to go where a lot of authors wouldn't. Being a major player, or one with whom the reader massively empathises is no guarantee of a long and happy life in his novels. Several times he has left me breathless thinking 'OMG, you can't do that to so and so, you just CAN'T!' But he does. It hasn't stopped me reading though. Of course, with it being a long, involved ongoing series, you might be desperate to know what happens next, but inevitably you catch up with the author's output and then you have to wait...and while you're waiting you forget what happened before, especially if you have a goldfish memory like mine.
Bottom line. Add G.R.R. Martin to your TBR and give him a go. I'd be interested to know what you think, should you get round to it.
I'd love to read a straight historical novel about El Cid. Are there any out there in English translation?

Gabriele Campbell said...

GRR Martin encouraged me to kill important characters. Not only historical ones who happen to die on the poor writer halfway through because of the timeline, but fictive ones I think the reader will like, as well. Life isn't fair, so why should my books be? ;)

Gemmell's books are mostly in the 350 page range. It's his worlds that are epic, and the fact he writes standalones, or loosely connected books in his worlds and by that covers a greater timeframe and area. Though I admit that his writing lacks the grace of Kay and epic grandeur of Tolkien, and his characters aren't sympathetic (though I like some of them, but I have a weird taste, sometimes).

Carla said...

Elizabeth - I'm not aware of any historical novels about El Cid, and a quick Google didn't locate any. Shame, because I'd like to read one too. Maybe if the current fashion for female main characters dies down someone will oblige in the future, otherwise it looks like we have to make do with either Lions of Al-Rassan or the Charlton Heston version :-) Unless someone else knows different?

Gabriele - I'll give David Gemmell another try, when I get round to it, and ditto with GRR Martin. The prospect of major/sympathetic characters coming to undeserved bad ends doesn't put me off. It happens often enough in real history, and for some stories it seems to be the most (only?) satisfying and natural shape. The Once and Future King wouldn't work at all (for me) if Arthur beat Mordred and lived happily ever after with Guinevere. Narrative causality again, I guess.

Sarah Johnson said...

Hmm, El Cid in fiction - there's The Infidel, a novel about his wife, by Georgia Elizabeth Taylor. However, I didn't care at all for her novel Lamia, so I haven't read this one. I remember enjoying Kay's novel, though.

GRR Martin's Game of Thrones was another I enjoyed, although I have the same problem with it as I had with Robert Jordan (who wasn't nearly as good, but who I gave up on for the same reason) - the books appear so far apart time-wise that I'd have to start at the beginning all over again if I wanted to get back into the story. I've completely forgotten the plot of the 1st novel, although I do remember the grimness.

Carla said...

Sarah - Now I'm wondering why a novel about El Cid's wife could possibly be titled The Infidel? Dona Jimena was Catholic as far as I know - so she could presumably be the infidel? - but who would be calling her that? Or does the title refer to someone else altogether?

Sarah Johnson said...

Carla - that's a good question, and I don't know the answer offhand. I'll have to check my copy of the book when I get home (in about a week).