Friends have always encouraged me to read Guy Gavriel Kay but somehow I haven't gotten around to following their advice until now. I have copies of The Lions of Al-Rassan and Tigana but I always thought that I would start with his latest book Under Heaven, a Tang-dynasty inspired piece. During my last trip to Manila, I couldn't find a handy version of the book so I turned to the ones that were already in my library. I'm glad I did. The Lions of Al-Rassan is one of the richest and most engaging things I have read so far this year.
Mr Kay is known for works set in imagined realms that are loosely based on real places at a particular moment in history. The Lions of Al-Rassan is set in an analogue of the Iberian Peninsula during the Reconquista, a campaign to take back territories from the Muslims. Though Al-Rassan's fictional war does not last hundreds of years as the Reconquista did, it still spans a generation. Armies move under the banner of religion but the war is largely a political one, a reclamation of power and territory and rightful claim. The Lions of Al-Rassan depicts the hardships and consequences of war, its risks and its sacrifices.
It is the story of three peoples: the Kindath, a dispossessed race who revere the twin moons, their lands invaded many generations ago and still ostracized despite their renown for skill and trade; the Asharites who worship the stars, divided into the decadent city-dwellers and the fierce nomadic tribes; and the Jaddites, followers of the sun, the former conquerors who have been embroiled by petty battles and disputes within their own kingdom before one of them decides to turn his gaze towards the entire peninsula.
This is a war told through different eyes. Not new, some might argue. But anyone new to Mr Kay would appreciate that each of his characters are effective and engaging narrators. At the forefront are two of the greatest military minds of their time: Ammar ibn Khairan, the poet-assassin who is responsible for killing the Kaliphs of Al-Rassan, and Rodrigo Belmonte, the fearsome Jaddite captain who commands 150 of the best and most loyal horsemen and warriors. Ammar and Rodrigo are very different in lifestyle, temperament, and beliefs but when they find themselves exiled from their respective kingdoms, they form an unlikely bond. They are well-matched in skill and firm in their principles, which fuels their mutual respect for one another. Caught between these two great men is Jehane, a Kindath physician and the only daughter of the most famous doctor in Al-Rassan.
There are also other characters whose perspectives give us more insight into the brewing war, and it speaks of Mr Kay's skill that even his minor characters are well-developed. You see the impact of war on an orphaned peasant boy, on an idealistic soldier, on a former merchant. You see the passions of a conquering king and a foreign adviser among men whose religion shuns his. You see two boys on the verge of growing up ahead of their time. But what's interesting to note is that although the war is purported to be a religious one and crimes are made in the name of gods, we hear little from the wadjis and clerics, the story's religious zealots and segregationists. They are often mentioned but are largely relegated to the background in an almost one-dimensional depiction. On one hand, it makes us dismiss the extremists' singular purpose as destructive, with few avenues for literary exploration and justification. On another, it may be that the relatively limited exposure of religious figures in this 'religious' war will draw us away from seeing faith as a truly dividing factor; it is how people act in the name of faith that is called into question here.
One of the most important themes of the book is of religious/cultural tolerance and understanding. Mr Kay likes putting his characters in situations where they would have depend on each other, defying the dictates of their cultures. Though I'm not a fan of how every other male in the book seems to fall in love with Jehane, I do recognize that she serves as a link between Rodrigo and Ammar, who symbolize the novel's opposing forces. She herself stands for the open-mindedness, steadfastness, and empathy needed in a world of fear and hate. It then becomes tragic to see how these different characters, who have come to earn each other's trust and respect, have to succumb to the call of war.
If you are looking for a moving epic, then I'd thoroughly recommend The Lions of Al-Rassan. It is epic and sweeping, but more importantly, it is contained in one book. (Fantasy writers, it can be done!) Despite the scope, it also has its moments of restraint and introspection. It digs deeper into the hopes and fears of its individual characters to form a truly rich, thoughtful, and rousing tapestry.