Monday, July 23, 2012

book review: the lions of al-rassan

I am a huge fan of Guy Gavriel Kay's writing. I've read all the fiction he's ever put out, though I've yet to really delve into his poetry. I mean to, at some point. It was almost inevitable that I end up adoring him: a fellow Canadian, who writes fantasy. Historical fantasy, no less.

This isn't the first time I've read The Lions of Al-Rassan, and I'm sure it won't be the last. My copy is so well read that it has no cover, although I can't take all the credit for that as it was a used-bookstore purchase and the cover had half fallen off when I bought it. I love all his books, but this one in particular I keep coming back to.
It takes place in a fantasy version of Spain, and parts of the plot are based on the first Crusade. Religion and the interplay between faith, belonging and how people of one religion can relate to those of another weigh heavily in the book. Kay has created three fantasy religions to stand in for Christianity (the Jaddites), Judaism (the Kindath) and Islam (the Asharites). He uses these religions (well, the whole fantasy world, really) in several of his other books, and by removing the religions we so well know and replacing them with made up versions is able to make some keen insights and commentary. The pseudo-Spain he sets the world in is richly populated and fleshed out well, and it's a comfortable world to slip into. His creates this beautifully rich world for us to slip into, and he uses his setting to create the atmosphere and the mood.

The Lions of Al-Rassan has three main characters: Rodrigo Belmonte, a Jaddite knight and captain (based loosely on El Cid), Ammar ib Khairan, an Asharite poet, warrior and politician, and Jehane bet Ishak, a Kindath doctor. Though the grander plot within the book is based on the Crusades, reading it we see through these three sets of eyes and their relationships with each other drive the story.

The stories are tangled and interwoven. What happens in one area of the Kay's world can have great impacts on other areas, given that our main characters are power players in this world with Belmonte and ibn Khairan both being military leaders for their respective peoples.

There is so much depth and beauty in this book that I barely know where to begin with my review of it. There's this grand commentary on religion and bigotry and the truth (or lack thereof) that can be found within stereotypes. Two secondary characters end up adopting the habits and attire of other religions, and Kay explores this cultural appropriation in a very poignant way. The backstory of the novel is rich where it needs to be, but isn't given too much weight so as to be distracting to the main plotlines.

Kay uses foreshadowing better than almost any other fantasy author I can think of, and from a very early moment in the book begins to hint at what the final climax of the book entails, without giving away anything of the outcome. The climax itself makes me want to cry, and is so beautifully written. I'd say more but it's the moment that the entire book builds to, so I don't want to give it away.

I also find the women in his book, particularly Jehane and Miranda Belmonte and Queen Ines to be compelling. Their personalities and professions, the ways in which they conduct their lives, are set in contrast to a male-dominated world where women aren't given power and agency over their own lives or choices. Watching the ways in which they go about achieving their very different goals is interesting. Jehane, in a way, has the most control of her life; she is able to pursue her education and career as a physician by virtue of the fact that she was born a Kindath. Miranda and Ines, who are powerful women on political stages, have less choice in their own lives but are able to find their own styles of power within their relationships.

All in all? I've read this book a half a dozen times, and will likely read it many more times. This is an all around winner.

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