Review: The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
You know that book that's been sitting on your To Be Read list seemingly forever? That book is The Lions of Al-Rassan. A standalone fantasy book that's well worth checking out. This book made me cry, people. It's that good. It had all the elements that I love in an historical fantasy book — interesting characters, wonderful setting and captivating story.
Come with me after the jump to see what I enjoyed about the story.
The blueprint for Guy Gavriel Kay's fantasy world is medieval Spain. A fractured Peninsula, with minor kings vying for control, each with his own objective, each wanting to control more of the Peninsula than he currently holds. Yes, Kay creates his own world and it's actually hard to define this book as historical fantasy, historical fiction or fantasy. Let's say it's partly all three. When you read the book, you can clearly tell it's based on Spain, but The Lions of Al-Rassan is also it's own unique novel. Kay conjures up images of the vast desert that faces the Peninsula, the bounty of Al-Rassan and the attempts to meld different religions into some form of harmony.
We have three distinctive religious groups that echo three religions we all recognise: The Jaddites (Christianity), The Asharites (Islam) and the Kindath (Judaism). Our three lead characters are from each religion: The Jaddite – Rodrigo Belmonte, the Asharite – Ammar ibn Khairan and the Kindath – Jehane ben Ishak. Events cause our three characters paths to intersect, and from that point onwards their stories are intertwined. Intertwined in such a way that it feels inevitable that their lives will be forever changed. Changed in such a way that there will be heartbreak and difficult decisions to be made before this story is done.
When Rodrigo Belmonte and Ammar ibn Khairan first meet, there is a sense of destiny. Here are two warriors. Both esteemed by Jaddite and Asharite rulers. Both bound by their honour, their loyalty and their love for the Peninsula. They are evenly matched and both men know it. They are men that any ruler would want, and for a time they work as mercenaries under the same king. However, there is always the feeling that this is a temporary situation.
Kay lulls the reader into a false sense of security. Yes, there are unexpected deaths. Men that hope their actions will save the larger group. Massacres carried out in the name of a religion's god. Yet, each time, we think our characters will make it to the end of the story. Maybe not in one piece, but live to fight another day. Events spiral out of control for our three main characters. Rodrigo, Ammar and Jehane will have to decide which side they will fight on. It's a fight that will stretch the bonds of friendship and comradery. It's a fight the reader senses from the moment our characters met that can end only one way. Kay keeps the reader in suspense, as previous events make us think a miracle might happen. That there could be a way out. Perhaps a miracle is possible.
The Lions of Al-Rassan isn't heavy on any magic system, so don't go in expecting this to be a magical, fantasy book. The only sign of magical ability is more what I would term an ability vs magic. Yet, the power of Diego Belmonte's ability will have far-reaching implications across the Peninsula. Kay shows us how one moment, one action can have far-reaching implications into the future.
It's a long time since a book made me cry, and that easily pushes a book into five-star territory. The writer has taken me on a journey where I didn't realise I was being led. Whilst reading, I didn't think crying was on the horizon. Little did I know that Kay had skilfully woven his story in such a way that I became invested in our characters and what was happening in their lives over the course of a year. Each character was so well written that I couldn't back a side to ultimately win. All I could hope for was an ending that did justice to the story. Kay certainly achieved that. Even if he made me cry.
Recommended for lovers for historical fiction and fantasy.