Thursday, January 6, 2022

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

I have no idea why I've waited so long to read Guy Gavriel Kay's fiction. He keeps getting mentions from some of my favourite authors, so I'm ridiculously glad that I've finally made the effort to pick up his writing. I stumbled across The Lions of Al-Rassan in one of my local second-hand bookstores, and it languished on my bookshelf awhile longer. 

I won't lie. There's a lot to unpack with this novel. Kay mentions in an interview* that he became interested in examining historical times through the lens of the fantastic, and the way that we can glimpse particular world views through the lenses of the characters. And that's exactly what he does with The Lions of Al-Rassan, which is a book that's going to stay with me for a long, long time and begs that I revisit it at some point in the future, as there is no doubt much that I missed on the first read through.

At its heart, this is a story inspired by the Reconquista, and examines how people, when possessed by strong ideologies, will act when greater forces are at play. Most of the conflict plays out between the kings of EsperaƱa, who worship the sun god Jad, and the slowly crumbling Cartada empire, that is past its prime and inhabited by the Asharites who worship a stellar deity, Ashar. Each social group sees itself as having the right of things, and the lunar-orientated Kindath – a landless people much like our Jewish folks – are caught between greater powers and often turned into convenient scapegoats. 

Yet there is a basic humanity at play, too. EsperaƱan military leader Rodrigo Belmonte serves his king, but falls out of favour, and his path crosses with the infamous Asharite poet and assassin, Ammar ibn Kharian. An unlikely friendship is forged, but tension remains, and caught betwixt them is the intelligent, talented Kindath physician Jehane bet Ishak.

Much like Scott Lynch, Kay writes with a remote third-person verging on omniscient, and succeeds so incredibly that I will hold him up as an example for those wanting to see how this somewhat tricky writing style can be done, and done well. His writing harks more to the measured, classic style akin to Tolkien rather than the fast-paced fantasy that's deemed popular these days. As a guide, I'd also recommend him to people who enjoy Robin Hobb. Kay often turns over the kinds of ideas that are difficult, if not impossible, to discuss in polite company (or on social media, for that matter). But he brings these themes, many of which are pertinent to today's current issues, with empathy and nuance. His characters are incredibly well realised, and although not always likeable, they are deeply fascinating. He does not shy away from depicting violence, either, so if you are squeamish, perhaps skip those pages.

A word of caution if you're new to Kay's writing: there are many names, much exposition (beautifully handled), and much nuance, that is difficult to parse at first. But Kay is a master of weaving, and if you are a patient reader, willing to slow your pace, persevere, and allow the words to carry you along, you may well find yourself enchanted like I was.


No comments:

Post a Comment