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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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2,452712,511 (4.32)1 / 380
Recently added byAmberfly, iglified, Wasabiishot, LitaVore, private library, YouKneeK, thorkell, patb5, gennyt
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    Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (Anonymous user)
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    The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett (Anonymous user)
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    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 the second book I’ve read by Guy Gavriel Kay, the first being Tigana. I really enjoy his writing style. One thing in particular that I’ve enjoyed about both books is that they each managed to satisfy my epic fantasy cravings within a single, standalone novel. I enjoy a good epic fantasy series, but a standalone does have the advantage of being easier to fit into my reading schedule.

The story involves the cultural and religious conflicts between various factions in a peninsula on a fictional world. We follow some of the more influential characters from those different cultures, most of whom are very likeable, as their goals coincide and conflict with each other. The author writes characters and camaraderie very well. Sometimes I thought there was a little too much melodrama, and sometimes events were a bit too coincidental, but mostly it was a well-written and engaging story. It did get to the point where I was laughing every time yet another person ended up in Ragosa, though! And I laughed even harder when one of the characters remarked on it also.

It’s probably arguable whether this book really counts as fantasy. It definitely has a solid epic fantasy feel, depending I guess on what you think of when you hear “epic fantasy”, and it’s clearly set on a fictional world with two moons. However, there weren’t really any actual fantastical elements aside from one secondary character with an unexplained special ability. The story and setting are inspired by and have some parallels in real-world history.

It was easy to decide on a 4.5 star rating on the sites where I can give half stars, but it was much, much harder to decide whether to round up or down on Goodreads. In the end, I decided to round down. There was just a little too much bitter in the bittersweet ending, however much I expected it. I also felt frustrated with some of the characters’ choices, and there was the aforementioned melodrama and coincidences. Overall, though, I really enjoyed reading this book and I was completely engrossed by it while I was reading it. I’ll likely try to fit Kay’s work back into my reading schedule sooner rather than later. ( )
1 vote YouKneeK | May 6, 2017 |
Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the most consistently praised fantasy authors; for instance, Brandon Sanderson calls him the “the greatest living author of epic fantasy“. I had read the first Fionavar Tapestry book, THE SUMMER TREE, but I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about – I thought it seemed like a cross between a more adult Narnia and The Wheel of Time (“Tapestry” instead of “Pattern”). I figured I should give him another shot though, and I’m glad I did, because now I understand, and only the pile of unread books in the house is keeping me from buying his entire bibliography right now.

THE LIONS OF AL-RASSAN is set in the equivalent of the Iberian peninsula in the era of Moorish Spain. The Asharite city-states of the south and the Jaddite kingdoms of the north have had a tenuous peace despite their religious differences, but the winds are changing. Rodrigo Belmonte, the celebrated Jaddite captain, and Ammar ibn Khairan, the notorious right-hand man of the Asharite King Almalik of Cartada both find themselves driven away from their countries, and end up in the same city. Jehane, a Kindath physician, finds that her life is increasingly interwoven with theirs, as the world that she knows slowly begins to fall apart around her.

Despite being set in a secondary world, THE LIONS OF AL-RASSAN is clearly meant to evoke history – the names of the countries are different, and the religions are based on the celestial bodies of their world – but the map of the world is the same, and the Asharites, Jaddites, and Kindath represent the Muslims, Christians, and Jews, respectively. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that at first, but it’s a brilliant way for the author to take readers into how it felt like to live in that world without having to be too closely tied to historical accuracy.

Rodrigo Belmonte and Ammar ibn Khairan are the heart and soul of this book. They’re from very different worlds, but have a lot in common – both are larger than life, principled, intelligent, compassionate – heroes that actually deserve their reputation. When they finally meet, the world itself shivers a little bit. We see their story play out from many points of view, but the most important (and third protagonist) is Jehane, who is exceptional in her own right, but not as relevant to history. These three break the barriers of faith and country to develop an enduring friendship, but even the greatest of men are just men, and cannot resist the inexorable pressure of history waiting to be made.

The characterization of this book is exemplary – I’ve already talked about Rodrigo and Ammar a little bit, but Kay takes what would have been trite and cloying in less subtle hands and makes you truly believe in their legend. They’re not flawless – Rodrigo is somewhat reckless, and Ammar is a master of manipulation, but they still manage to make you believe in the ultimate goodness of humanity. I loved Jehane – the book blurb describes her as “increasingly torn by her feelings” which made me dread some sort of love triangle, but thankfully there’s none of that – she’s capable, intelligent, mature, and extremely skilled at what she does. I was pleasantly surprised to find that she’s also fully in control of her own sexuality. The supporting characters were fantastic, too – Alvar, one of Rodrigo’s young soldiers who gradually opens his eyes to the complexities of the world around him, and Rodrigo’s long-suffering, loving, and frankly, impressive wife Miranda were two of my favourites.

One of the biggest themes in this book is conflicting loyalties – to king, country, church, and family/friends. Rodrigo and Ammar are exiled by their respective monarchs, but they still don’t lose their love for where they’re from. Alvar loves where he’s from, but when he realizes what the world is actually like, he makes very different choices from what he would have imagined when setting out as a young soldier. Ramiro’s wife, Ines, is loyal to her god and her church, but that is tested when it endangers her country. Even the Belmonte’s cleric, Ibero, makes a terrible choice, and ends up regretting it dearly. Many of the choices made could have almost gone the other way, and are sometimes influenced by almost-random events (like Ramiro’s decision after the meeting with his fellow Espereñan monarchs) and it ends up making the coming war and its effects seem even more tragic.

Kay is an incredible writer – he uses the common themes of honor, loyalty, and sacrifice but elevates them to a whole different level – I thought I was beyond being moved by those things. He’s also tricky sometimes; there are several scenes in which you think you know exactly what’s going on but his cunning phrases and slight omissions mean that what actually happens is a complete surprise. The scene at the end of the Carnival in Ragosa, and the epilogue are two examples. I don’t think I could read his books all in a row if they’re all this intense, but I’m so glad I have them to look forward to.

I could keep going on, but I don’t think I could convey any better how amazing THE LIONS OF AL-RASSAN is, so I’ll stop here. I highly recommend it, I think it’s one of the masterpieces of fantasy. ( )
  kgodey | Apr 11, 2017 |
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 |
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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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