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The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995)

by Guy Gavriel Kay

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2,393702,605 (4.31)1 / 368
  1. 60
    Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (Anonymous user)
  2. 20
    The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett (Anonymous user)
  3. 00
    The Tyranny of the Night by Glen Cook (Jarandel)
    Jarandel: Both a simile, with Fantasy treatment, of European history in the era of the Crusades. Lions of Al-Rassan centers on the Spanish Reconquista, while the Tyranny of the Night has a wider scope.

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The Lions of Al-Rassan is Kay's first book in the Jaddite / Sarantine parallel world. (Although the calqued-onto-history method is similar in Tigana and A Song For Arbonne, they take place in different worlds. References to Fionavar, which is the base of all parallel worlds including our own do get into every book.)

It parallels the story of El Cid and the Reconquista in Iberia, but uses the freedom of alternative history to provide minor divergences, and, as in all of his works along these lines, his real focus is on the personal lives of his central characters, and with the ways in which minor chance occurrences or decisions can shape later great events.

If Tigana is about identity and liberty, and the costs they incur, this is about the tensions between tolerance and allegiance, and how personal loves and friendships cut across them.

He gets the balance right overall here, and with more focus than in the later and more ambitious Sarantine Mosaic.

He has been criticized for the use of "manipulative" narrative tricks to engage the reader emotionally. I see the tricks, but I don't think of them as major flaws so much as shorthand, the activity of an occasionally intrusive narrator in a literary world where intrusive narration is less popular than it used to be.

This is an excellent place to start with Kay, as it provides context for his later books set in the same world. (There is a minor thread in the Sarantine Mosaic which will have more significance of one has read this first.) ( )
  jsburbidge | Jul 8, 2016 |
You know, reading a book by Guy Gavriel Kay is like walking into a feast prepared by a master chef. You have an idea of what the plot/flavors will be, you know it will be one of the best things you've ever read/eaten, and you find yourself nibbling at dainties while, in fact, more and more courses come your way on silver platters, each more delicious than the one before.

This book of an alternate history of mideval Spain, complete with desert warriors and persecuted outsiders, is a seat at the most sumptuous dinner served by robed desert warriors whose careful eyes show above their face scarves. The characters are well-drawn out, the plot line is full of twists and turns, and as with Song for Arbonne," this is a piece of mideval history that almost could have been. The Kaddith are the persecuted religious minority who also possess great medical knowledge, the courts of the kings are sumptuous gardens with streams down their centers, and the two central fighters are tense springs, ready for action. The religious tension between the Asharites and the Jaddites is never far from the overall story in the book, as it was in Spain (and so often is when the priests begin to rule the rulers).

As with a feast or other books by this extraordinary author, it is sometimes just enough to sample a bit of his writing with its richness and poetry. Sometimes, just sometimes, a sample of richness is just enough. But then you find the offerings have grabbed your interest, once you've sampled the characters and begin to follow their paths, and you find that you are gorging yourself on the imagery and plotline. Not to mention the richness of the language and the poetic-ness that it brings to your soul. And then you have to put the book down to let the many flavors digest for a while.

I will admit, I snuck a look at the dessert tray, right about the time that Ser Rodrigo Bellmonte is falling down the wall from his rooms towards the middle of Book Three. It's not an activity I recommend to everyone (both the falling and the sneaking a look), but I was so wrapped up in what was going to happen and there were so many, many different possibilities that I jumped over the craftsmanship of the storyteller's art just to know what happened. I'll still probably cry at the end.

A must-read for anyone who prefers their authors treat them as intelligent readers, or for those who enjoy some poetry with their prose, or even just because you long for a feast of words, no matter the genre." ( )
1 vote threadnsong | Jun 18, 2016 |
Last year I read Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay and loved it. To me, it represented everything high fantasy should be. Perhaps it's wrong for me to now compare The Lions of Al-Rassan too closely to its predecessor, which is widely considered Kay's masterpiece. But Lions does strive for the same things and in the same way; unfortunately, unlike Tigana, it does not always achieve them.

It remains lyrical (if perhaps less quotable) and there is a great deal of pathos – in no small part due to the effective character-building. (That said, looking back, I'm disappointed in just how few of the main characters have any real flaws.) I never wanted to put the book down (though I maintain that's true of any big novel once you really get into it, especially fantasy) and you don't always know where events are going to lead.

You may have noticed the reservations and qualifications I have when praising elements of The Lions of Al-Rassan – the I liked x or y, but…" That is because – for all its merits – the book felt significantly flawed. Whereas Tigana was an intoxicating feast from beginning to end, Lions is like a well-presented meal that nevertheless doesn't sit entirely well in the stomach.

For one thing, it is too close to real history, making me wonder at times whether I'd be better served reading genuine historical fiction. Whereas Tigana took real-world inspiration (the city-states of medieval Italy) and crafted a new fantasy world with its own dynamics, Lions is just Moorish Spain with some slightly changed names. The names of real-life cities, countries and historical figures are given just minor tweaks. (It seems this might be a problem going forward: in looking at which Kay book to read next, the main contenders seem too close to either Viking Britain or dynastic China.) The religions – which form a fundamental part of the novel – are just Christianity, Islam and Judaism with new names. There are no new loyalties or rivalries; it is just as you might find it in a history book. At its best, this felt unadventurous; at its worst, lazy. It robs you of one of the main attractions of the fantasy genre: the total immersion in a new and strange world.

The book's attempt at providing the other main attraction of fantasy – that of an engrossing adventure – is also flawed, though still successful. As mentioned above, I never wanted to put the book down, which is a credit to Kay's writing, but that doesn't mean I found the structure of the story entirely sound. Most damagingly, the ending of the book is too quickly resolved. After about 500 pages of build-up, events in the Peninsula are wrapped up quickly (previously-developed characters are written off in single lines), giving the last hundred or so pages the feeling of an extended epilogue. Kay clearly does this so he can bring us to the big finale, and whilst that finale does drip with emotion, it is not without its flaws. For one, I was annoyed at all the teasing vagaries as to who actually died; it denied us the full impact of their death and took me out of the story as I recognised this obvious literary trick on the author's part. It also leads me onto my other main criticism of the novel.

The themes of Tigana were myriad and nuanced. The Lions of Al-Rassan has a single theme, and I'm not sure I liked what Kay did with it. I made Lions my first Guy Gavriel Kay read after Tigana (aside from my slight diversion into Beyond This Dark House, his book of poetry) solely because I enjoy reading about religious criticism and myth. I am an atheist and a history buff – it appeals to my interests in the clash of cultures, the seismic changes of history, the greyness of morality and the struggle between idealism and realism. Lions' theme seems to be about how all sides – all religions – are as bad and as good as each other in their bigotry and their civilization. We are shown this through the adventures of Jehane's ragtag band of Asharites, Jaddites and Kindaths; as one character says on page 383: "[we] represent the best this peninsula has to offer… we stand humbly before you, are proof that men of different worlds can blend and mingle those worlds. That we can take the very finest things from each, to make a new whole, shining and imperishable." Another character echoes this – the regret that in an age of holy war "what little space there is for men to move back and forth between worlds disappears because the worlds are lost to hatred." (pg. 573).

But this theme – the only real theme of the novel – is undermined by the plot developments. (minor spoilers) The characters choose sides – they settle for the old battle-lines of choosing to stand alongside those of the same faith and upbringing – on the nebulous basis of 'honour' – even when they are shown and they experience love and friendship amongst those of different religions. They might have a more enlightened view of other individuals, but they make little attempt to try to shape events towards a more tolerant outlook. If these characters represent tolerance triumphing over bigotry, why is the ending so devoid of triumph, or even an active attempt at change? If we're back to where we started and haven't really changed (beyond a respectful remembrance of that nice unbeliever you killed), what was the point of the journey? (end minor spoilers) It means all we're left with is Kay's nice writing – the romance and the pathos. That's still enough to make The Lions of Al-Rassan worth reading, but not enough to place it anywhere near the level of the near-perfect Tigana.

I know it seems like I'm being harsh on the novel. I'm aware that it's always easier to criticise at length than to praise at length, and I should emphasise that my main conclusion is that I thoroughly enjoyed The Lions of Al-Rassan. Whilst reading it, I was completely engrossed. I was swept up by it, particularly with the two lions at the end, and if this sweep was not on the same level as Tigana, it was still certainly the same sensation. It was only afterwards – to reuse the analogy I made earlier – that I found the meal hadn't really digested properly. On closing The Lions of Al-Rassan, my heart said 'yes', but I knew my head was mindful of its imperfections. Whilst my heart may see it now as a five-star read, I know that as I sober I will in time come to see it as a four-star one. I enjoyed the book and will continue to read more from Kay, but I fear he might have shone brightest with the earlier Tigana." ( )
  MikeFutcher | Jun 3, 2016 |
Lions of al Rassan - G.G.Kay
audio performance by Euan Morton
4.5 stars

”And surely, surely, if we are not simply animals that live to fight, there must be a reason for bloodshed.

There are a multitude of reasons for bloodshed in this saga. The Lions of al-Rassan is best described as ‘alternate history’. It is based on a period of history that I know nothing about, the medieval Spanish Reconquista. Kay gives his world three opposing religious cultures; the Kindath, the Jaddites and the Asharites. These cultures clearly represent Jews, Catholics and Muslims. At first I found this distracting. I was constantly translating the various fantasy names to coincide with the real ones. This wasn’t helpful. It was better to read the book attending closely to the world building as I would with any other fantasy. Later, when all the story elements were in place the historical comparison became easier and more meaningful.

This book definitely reads like historical fiction. The only paranormal element is a single character with limited psychic abilities. The story builds around three main protagonists: Jehan bet Ishak, a female, Kindath physician; Ammar ibn Khairan, an Asharite poet, assassin and advisor to kings; and Rodrigo Belmonte, a Jaddite soldier and rancher. They become unlikely companions, loyal friends and honorable enemies in a time of catastrophic change. I was totally engaged in the relationships of these three characters and the very large cast of complex supporting characters.

There are a multitude of political complications in this book. Secrets, betrayals, treachery and bloodshed; it was difficult to keep track of the many tangled plotlines. This is especially true because Kay builds suspense by hiding the identity of characters in scenes of potentially tragic action. Which character is speaking? Who is it behind the mask? Who has just been injured? Sometimes I was confused, but I kept turning the pages. Euan Morton gave a fabulous performance in the audiobook, but at first I needed the text. There is a map and a list of principal characters the I referred to often.

Kay’s characters give voice to very difficult questions of loyalty, honor, and faith. Those universal themes, the complex plotting, and the lyrical prose move this book well above generic escapist fiction. The historical comparisons acquire meaning that resonate with real world current events.

“It's one thing to make war for your country, your family, even in pursuit of glory. It's another to believe that the people you fight are embodiments of evil and must be destroyed for that. I want this peninsula back. I want Esperana great again, but I will not pretend that if we smash Al- Rassan and all it has built we are doing the will of any god I know.”

Kay has some interesting things to say about the value of using fantasy to tackle historic subjects. There is an essay about this on his website. His author’s comments increased my appreciation of his writing. http://www.brightweavings.com/ggkswords/globe.htm
( )
  msjudy | May 30, 2016 |
I've heard great things about this author and it looks like they were all true. ( )
  Traciinaz | Mar 17, 2016 |
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Guy Gavriel Kayprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Howe, JohnCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The evening is deep inside me forever

Many a blond, northern moonrise,

like a muted reflection, will softly

remind me and remind me again and again.

It will be my bride, my alter ego.

An incentive to find myself. I myself

am the moonrise of the south.

Paul Klee, The Tunisian Diaries
For Harry Karlinksy and Mayer Hoffer, after thirty-five years.
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Always remember they come from the desert.
It was just past midday, not long before the third summons to prayer, that Ammar ibn Khairan passed through the Gate of the Bells and entered the Al-Fontina in Silvenes to kill the last of the khalifs of Al-Rassan. [prologue]
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060733497, Paperback)

The ruling Asharites of Al-Rassan have come from the desert sands, but over centuries, seduced by the sensuous pleasures of their new land, their stern piety has eroded. The Asharite empire has splintered into decadent city-states led by warring petty kings. King Almalik of Cartada is on the ascendancy, aided always by his friend and advisor, the notorious Ammar ibn Khairan -- poet, diplomat, soldier -- until a summer afternoon of savage brutality changes their relationship forever.

Meanwhile, in the north, the conquered Jaddites' most celebrated -- and feared -- military leader, Rodrigo Belmonte, driven into exile, leads his mercenary company south.

In the dangerous lands of Al-Rassan, these two men from different worlds meet and serve -- for a time -- the same master. Sharing their interwoven fate -- and increasingly torn by her feelings -- is Jehane, the accomplished court physician, whose own skills play an increasing role as Al-Rassan is swept to the brink of holy war, and beyond.

Hauntingly evocative of medieval Spain, The Lions of Al-Rassan is both a brilliant adventure and a deeply compelling story of love, divided loyalties, and what happens to men and women when hardening beliefs begin to remake -- or destroy -- a world.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:59 -0400)

(see all 9 descriptions)

In 12th Century Spain, the romance of Jehane bet Ishak, a woman doctor who falls in love with two men at once, Gen. Ammar ibn Khairan and Gen. Rodrigo Belmonte. When the generals go to war against each other, Jehane faces a difficult choice. Lots of period detail, the protagonists representing the three cultures, Jewish, Moorish and Christian.… (more)

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