Friday, October 29, 2010

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay — 528 pgs

Book CoverIn medieval Spain, an old world is coming to an end. The tribes of Al-Rassan are amassing for the final conflict that will shape the future to come, leaving behind a once great empire. Into these dark times comes Jehane, a sharp and resourceful Kindath physician who is about to discover that her once ordered and solid existence is about to be changed forever. When she meets Ammar ibn Khairan, her fate is complicated further and the two form a very unlikely and uneasy alliance. Ammar ibn Khairan, adviser to the King of Cartada, his just committed an act that brands him as a monster in the realm of Al-Rassan and he must flee in order to preserve his life. Meanwhile, Captain Rodrigo Belmonte is banished by his king and must leave his family behind as he takes refuge in enemy territory and is forced into a war he does not want to fight. Two of the three local tribes, the Jaddites and the Asharites, are vying for domination through a holy war that will consume the nation and banish the once great empire of Al-Rassan into oblivion. In this intricate work of historical fantasy, Guy Gavriel Kay gives us a civilization on the brink of holy war and introduces us to both the mighty and the meek who fight it.

I've been meaning to read a book from Guy Gavriel Kay for a long time. Though I rarely read fantasy, I've come across too many positive reviews and comments about Kay's work to ignore them and actually thought I would start with the first book in the Fiovinar Tapestry. The my good buddy Aarti suggested another read-along and told me how much she admired this book. She even told me she was crazy about Amaar and that he was her literary boyfriend. This I could not ignore, so I decided that this was a book I wanted to share with her. So we read it. And I. Was. Blown. Away. It was thrilling and exciting. It made me giggle and it made me cry. It made me want to read it all over again once I turned the final page. And best of all, it made me realize that Kay is an author that I have no business ignoring. So without further ado, I give you our conversation about The Lions of Al-Rassan. Make sure to pop on over to Aarti's site when you're done here to read the interesting Q & A we've put together.

Heather: I've really been thinking about this book a lot since I have finished it! I think the way Kay created such a vibrant and complex society and world was just amazing. There was just so much depth in the politics and the religion that it was constantly intriguing to read. I had been thinking a lot about the aspects of religion in this book and did some reading on Wikipedia. I hadn't realized that the three races were meant to convey the Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

Aarti: I think I knew that going into this book, but that is also because I know that Kay bases most of his novels on religious past (except perhaps Tigana, which is more about the effects of colonialism). For example, A Song for Arbonne is about southern France's troubadour culture (and also has a lot of poetry and music in it as well- Kay is also a poet). I think Lions is supposed to be about Spain during the Moorish conquest era and just after that.

Heather: It's really cool that Kay goes to extreme lengths to make his stories culturally relevant, and also that he seems to be tackling a lot of different areas with each successive book he writes. That level of detail and research takes the book to another level, I think. It also inspires me to do more digging into history to get the scoop behind what the intentions of the story shake out to be. I always love it when a book I'm reading makes me want to do research and explore more fully a subject that I hadn't previously given much thought. I also think it's funny that as a Christian, I identified with the Kindath the most, as they were supposed to represent the Jews!

Aarti: I feel the same way! I wonder if Kay did that on purpose, make the Kindath so easy to identify with. Though also, I really liked the Asharite court at Ragosa.

Heather: It was interesting to see that out of the three religions, two were ultra-concerned with domination and subjugation, to the point that they could have destroyed not only the people they were trying to conquer, but themselves as well. I think there are so many things to think about when considering the religious overtones in this book. Kay has a way of being relevant yet shocking at the same time.

Aarti: I liked that, too! I think I remember reading somewhere that the Crusades really were less about religion than they were about domination and power. I don't know if I believe that entirely, considering that the Middle Ages seemed to have been populated by religious zealots, but I could also see a more pragmatic and wily ruler using religion to press a different issue entirely, which was certainly done in this book. There is a sense of fighting against the inevitable in this book, holding back the darkness for just as long as you are able, even though you know you are going to lose. I loved that.

Heather: Yes, that was very touching and sad. They were fighting against things that were so much greater, and it didn't matter that they would lose. It only mattered that they had to try to hold on to the beauty and way of life they had known, for as long as they could. There were a lot of allusions to that in other parts of the story as well. And I think that is a lot of how Ammar felt about the fall of Al-Rassan, and especially about what was lost when the last Kalihef (I know I spelled that wring, but the book wasn't handy!) was killed. This book had strong themes of lament in it, mostly about the loss of a way of life and a time that would be slowly erased forever.

Aarti: Yes, absolutely. And in that way, it's really almost universal. It reminds me of the way people fought colonization, of the native American tribes fighting the whites, even the Confederate states fighting the North. People will do a lot to protect their own way of life. Even now, in Europe, they are so terrified of immigration ruining their culture. That's how the Slow Food movement started in Italy, actually- to preserve Italian food. Which is fairly ethnocentric, in my opinion, but understandable.

Heather: I liked the fact that all the characters were so rich as well. The men were honorable (well, most of them!) and the women were strong and independent, which I had really not been expecting. I have to say that it's rare for a book to be completely populated by strong characters, but this one was. Every character was so deeply realized and executed, and I found them all to be truely interesting. It was also interesting to wonder about what they were going to do next, and a lot of the time that I wasn't reading, I spent trying to figure out where this story was going and what was going to happen to these people that I was growing to love.

Aarti: I agree! I loved all the characters as well. I think in this read-through, I just had so much respect for Mazur, more so than on my previous read. He seemed like such a wise and interesting person, and his friendship with King Badir was so touching. I also liked getting to know more about his character through the POV of Yadir- learning about his thoughts on religion was so fascinating.

Heather: The inclusion of the poetry in this book was wonderful as well. I thought it was all deeply symbolic and very well written. I liked that some of the characters actually did a little of the decoding and analyzing for me as well. It helped me see that the poems were filled with messages about the story and actually forced me to pay a bit more attention to them.

Aarti: I am positive I didn't get some of the poetry symbolism!

Heather: Oh, I most definitely didn't get all the symbolism in the poetry and was glad that there was some guidance in the narrative! I've read that symbolism is really a subjective thing, and it can mean different things to different people. That makes it doubly hard to understand for me, because if it can be interpreted differently by each person, how do you know if you get it right? I'm glad I had a guiding hand with all of that in this book. I guess Kay wanted to make sure the reader got it! I had such an amazing time with this book, and it's so rich that I probably could pick it right back up and read it again and get another whole level of understanding on it. I am so, so glad that we decided on this one.

Aarti: I know what you mean! I feel like while I was reading, I kept thinking, "I should note this passage to talk about with Heather," but I never did note them because I just wanted to keep reading. I think the whole epilogue was wonderfully written, and so sad.

I was thrilled to get the chance to read this book with such a good friend, and to be able to discuss it and pick it apart. It was the kind of epic story that you can get caught up in and savor, and for awhile there, I was recommending this to any ear that was open. I think it's important to note that even if you are the type of reader who shies away from fantasy, there is something about this book that has a universal appeal. It's characters, setting and plot are in a word exceptional, and I think Kay's skill in the literary form is something to be admired. Not only was I highly surprised by this book, it also earned a place on my favorites shelf, which is really rare these days. Now you can head on over to Aarti's site to see our answers to the Q&A!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


Marie Cloutier said...

I love the dual-review- very fun! The book sounds fascinating and different!

Suko said...

This sounds like a truly great book! I enjoyed reading this review. It felt like an informal (but informative) book discussion between friends.

Amy said...

Wow, sounds like a writer I need to tackle! Thank you for bringing this to my attention!!

Jenners said...

You guys have your own personal book club! I love it! And now I need to find my own literary boyfriend (who isn't Edward Cullen, because that is just embarassing).

Marg said...

Man, I need to read this author!

Jenny said...

Wow! I've never heard of this book or author and would never have picked this up normally. But definitely sounds like a must read!!

Meghan said...

I adore this book myself and I'm so glad you got so much out of it! I hope you go on to read much more Kay. :)

Anonymous said...

I read some of his books in college, and I'm ashamed to say I can't remember which ones! I think they were the Sarantium books, but I'm not positive. I do, however, remember loving the world that Kay created.

Alec said...

Enjoyed the discussion.

As you seemed to be wondering, I thought I'd let you know that the historical period Lions draws from is the reconquista of Spain, when the Christians were taking the land back from the Moors who themselves had conquered and settled there some time before.

GGK's novel Tigana has historical routes as well, to the degree that its setting draws from early Renaissance Italy before it was a country, but rather a series of independent states whose infighting often allowed their stronger, larger neighbours to invade.

You can read a bit more of a summary here if you're interested:

I also suspect you may quite enjoy GGK's essay "Home and Away" where he writes about the merits of fantasy and offers some of the reasons for why he writes as he does, often using examples from Lions of Al-Rassan:


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