Monday, August 15, 2011

The Lions of Al-Rassan (Guy Gavriel Kay)

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.


skinnyblackcladdink said...

yeah, def moving, but actually one of Kay's weaker works, imho; something about it feels artificial compared to his other pseudohistorical fantasies (that i've read). if i were to recommend one book by Kay, esp for 'epic fantasy' fans, it'll always be Tigana, though i admittedly stopped reading him after the brilliant but more cerebral (i.e., less emotionally weighted, but still kinda moving, in a totally different sense - i'd say it's a more 'spiritual' work than the stuff that came before) Sailing to Sarantium.

hmm, kinda want to dig up my still-unread copy of Lord of Emperors now, which ended up being unread because it took so damn long to arrive on our shores after Sarantium.

dementedchris said...

Tigana's next on my list, but I hope that I can find a copy of Under Heaven soon. The Asian setting's a big draw for me.

Did you feel that Lions was too simplistic?

skinnyblackcladdink said...

hmm, somewhat, but that's not really what i find most problematic in this case; it seems to me to be part of the program, the approach Kay decided was best to get his message across; & while i'd've maybe preferred he went another way, i can see why it works here, esp given its position (chronologically, mostly, but not just) in generic post-Tolkien fantasy literature. (keep in mind that it's been ages since i actually read this, so i don't know how much of what i have to say about the text is actually valid.)

i wonder though, having read this, do you maybe see why i'm prejudiced against/skeptical of all the praise heaped on what George R.R. Martin is ostensibly doing with Song of Ice and Fire?

dementedchris said...

Now I'm excited to read Tigana. I'll try to pick up Sailing to Sarantium when I'm in the city.

One thing I didn't appreciate much in Lions was that sometimes he'd employ some kind of fakeout as a suspense builder and it wasn't my cup of tea. But it was such a minor complaint (and contributed nothing substantial to the review) that I didn't mention it. But I really did enjoy Guy Gavriel Kay, C. Thanks for the reco.

Re: GRRM. I suppose I can see why you feel Martin is inferior to Kay but reading Lions didn't make me enjoy Ice and Fire less. I think that Martin's heartlessness towards his characters, which a lot of people condemn, is still well-placed. I don't see it as a mere device placed for shock and/or to trim the fat of unwanted characters. And I like his politics better, but that's just me. Different strokes for different people, I guess. I think I can enjoy reading Kay and still be a GRRM apologist.

dementedchris said...

Keep it coming, C! Things like this make me miss coffee at SBC.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

funny you should mention GRRM's 'heartlessness'; i was in my earlier comment going to say something about GGK's compassion/humaneness, but then i wanted to bring GRRM into the discussion and that wasn't, in fact, the point of distinction i wanted to raise haha. though i suppose it's the obvious one: in fact, i do actually see the point of GRRM's so-called heartlessness particularly in light of GGK's possibly counterpoint 'compassion', but that wasn't what i meant.

i kinda do want to read GRRM now for the almost polar contrast he seems to present with GGK - but then again, of course, i'm too distanced now from GGK for that kind of reading to actually be meaningful. part of it is i guess i just wish GRRM wasn't so, well, long-winded. we've already discussed GRRM's prose, & we've already established our subjective positions on it, so that's pretty much a blind-alley for us to go down, but for one thing, i guess what i'd like to point out w/r/t prose/style/whatevs, is GGK's ability to get his point across effectively, framed in such a gripping & affectively nuanced narrative in so relatively short (for so-called generic epic fantasy, anyway) a time. granted that GRRM is trying to portray a truly complicated & realistic sociopolitical/cultural/whatevs system (GGK, btw, isn't, so there's that*), i nonetheless find myself skeptical that the sheer volume of text is essential to GRRM's project; that, say, enough of the text is devoted to that kind of development to be acceptable as justification, if you see what i mean.

of course, anything i have to say re:GRRM is based on nothing more than the prologue & first few pages of the first chapter of Game of Thrones, read more than a decade ago, so...bluh.

can we talk about Dr Who now? heh.

tara, SBC!

skinnyblackcladdink said...

you will, i hope, forgive the lapses in grammar & syntax, & nonetheless be able to cut to the meat of whatever the hell it is i'm saying haha

dementedchris said...

I definitely have to agree with you on the way GGK is able to write and imagine on such a grand scale but still ably manage to contain the story. The language is far from sparse and I don't think the length of the work compromises the plot or the character development. That was foremost in my mind, actually, while I was reading it; I couldn't believe that it was going to get wrapped up by the end of the book but of course it was.

I still haven't touched A Good Man Goes to War and Torchwood! Malapit na ba? Still torn on when I should go back to Manila. I'm trying to avoid spending my birthday there but if I give in, I might be there by the 10th or 11th.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

Dr Who returns 27 Aug. panoorin mo na, they've already released the (pretty heartbreaking, imho) prequel to the next ep.

let me know when you're here!

Chachic said...

I should bump Tigana up the TBR pile! I still haven't read any of Guy Gavriel Kay's novels and I had got my copy of that through Fully Booked's special order service. I also have copies of the first two Fionavar books.

dementedchris said...

Whoa, that close? I'll let you know stat. Do people still say that? Do doctors?

I'm pretty excited to read Tigana too, after this. I hope I get to start before ReaderCon! I really like how the GGK books that I've come across are mostly oneshots -- I don't think I can get into a new fantasy series at the moment! (I'm still reading Patrick Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear.)

skinnyblackcladdink said...

technically, you're supposed to begin with the Fionavar Tapestry, as i understand it a fairly typical multi-worlds quest fantasy that lays down the philosophy, the program or justification or whatevs, the rationale, maybe, of the rest of GGK's books. but i never bothered with it, & it hasn't colored my reception - perception? - of the books i have read, i don't think; not that i'm conscious of, anyway, though i do seem to remember some fairly innocuous if also obvious references to Fionavar in Tigana & the Sailing/Lord diptych (the references are a little more integral to the latter work, i think, being the more spiritual work, since the tapestry sorta represents the numinous side of GGK's literary universe[s]). i think there are references in Lions as well, though i'm a little hazier on that.

i wonder though how you'll respond to Tigana having arrived at GGK first through Lions. thing is, while i just called Lions the weaker book, it does however have the more unusual/atypical (at least until recently; now we have epic fantasy books plundering formerly more-exotic-but-less-popular cultures from all over the world, apparently) fantasy world; i remember Tigana takes place in a fairly typical medievaloid fantasy setting. so...yeah, i'd be interested to know. good thing you have this blog, then, eh? heh

skinnyblackcladdink said...

btw, Torchwood Miracle Day is sadly pretty limp; already six eps in, &, well, i suppose i'll be sticking with it to the end, now - hey, it's Capt. Jack & Gwen! sort of...& that's part of the problem - but, well. so. many. things. wrong/simply not working. bluh.

dementedchris said...

One of the major draws of Lions and Tigana was that they both seemed like stand-alone books (references notwithstanding). But Lions was also recommended by another friend so that's how I started with that. I am still interested in Fionavar (Summer Tree especially since it won a Mythopoeic) but I think I'll save the series for later. I don't think I can start a new series (or any fantasy book for that matter, but we'll see) until I finish the Rothfuss book. It is MASSIVE.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

oh, they definitely stand alone, no question - even Sailing to Sarantium somehow manages to be moderately self-contained & satisfying, despite only being half of the story; just saying, if one were really to seriously consider 'deep reading' GGK, that would appear to be the way you're meant (accdg to GGK's 'project/program', considering 'authorial intent' &c) to go about it...

i wonder though if GGK himself has 'stuck with the program' post-Sarantine Mosaic.