There are some books which leave you sitting in silence after you’ve finished them, staring into space. This is one of them. You may remember that I’ve mentioned it before: it’s one of my favourites; and so, when I heard that Helen was planning to read it for the first time, I asked if she would mind me re-reading it along with her. It hasn’t lost any of its impact. Poignant and powerful, it’s a sweeping medieval epic, tempered with nostalgia for two lost worlds: a glorious civilisation already on its deathbed; and a utopia of religious tolerance, which perhaps only ever existed in the imagination.
The great peninsula which was once united as Esperaña is now divided. In the north, the Jaddite worshippers of the sun-god fight among themselves as the three petty kings of Valledo, Ruenda and Jaloña vie for supremacy, having carved up the kingdom of the great Sancho the Fat. In the south, beyond the barren no-man’s-land of the tagra, lies the dwindling glory of the Asharite kingdom of Al-Rassan, once a splendid khalifate rich with fountains, poetry, gardens and military might. But the khalifs are gone – the great kingdom parcelled up among ambitious lords – and once-invincible Al-Rassan must now look over its shoulder to the north. The Jaddites, for all their primitive hardness, are great warriors and excellent horsemen, and their kings harbour dreams of reconquest. (If you know your medieval Spanish history, this may be beginning to sound familiar.)
People say there are no lions any more in Al-Rassan, but in this febrile age, caught between the fading luxurious beauties of the khalifate and the pugnacious ambitions of the north, there are two men who are perhaps worthy of that name. One is the great Jaddite general Rodrigo Belmonte, Captain to the King of Valledo, who is sent into temporary exile with his devoted company of men as the result of political rivalries. The other is Ammar ibn Khairan, former adviser to the Asharite king of Cartada. Elegant and subtle, he is renowned as a poet, diplomat, swordsman, statesman and political assassin. Meeting in the Asharite city of Ragosa, these two remarkable exiles find a kindred spirit in one another, and a friendship is formed which has the power to topple kings, raze cities and change the destiny of Al-Rassan forever.
Come, brother… Shall we show them how this is done?
Standing at the third angle of this extraordinary relationship is an extraordinary woman: Jehane bet Ishak, a Kindath physician from the town of Fezana, who has been drawn into the orbit of these two living legends and comes to love them both. She is one of those rare and deeply satisfying female protagonists who are principled, bright, self-sufficient, and able to govern their feelings with grace and dignity. Jehane doesn’t just melt into a swooning heap as female characters in many other books might (and as I might, to be honest, if Ammar were to climb through my window). As a doctor and a woman, she has faith in her own judgement, and she is consistently discreet, reflective and thoughtful. Looking back later, in the full awareness of all that has happened, she can’t regret her decisions:
A different life, if she hadn’t gone. Less wind, less rain. Perhaps none of the visions offered those who stand in the high places of the world.
These three – Kindath, Asharite and Jaddite – together represent a vision of what Al-Rassan could have been, in which three very different cultures might potentially form the foundation of something marvellous: ‘That we can take the very finest things from each, to make a new whole, shining and imperishable.’ It is a beguiling dream. And yet, unfortunately, the politics of Al-Rassan are not being driven by sensitive, intelligent, cosmopolitan people like these three. Urging on the rulers of the peninsula, on both sides, are the clerics: those who refuse to accept the justice of any faith except their own. Ammar, Jehane and Rodrigo know only too well what this will mean. All too soon they will witness the greatest tragedy of a civilised age, ‘when what little space there is for men to move back and forth between worlds disappears because the worlds are lost to hatred.’ There will come a time when all of them will have to choose where their loyalties lie.
The book’s setting is beautifully described – the rolling hills; the sumptuous courts; the fabulous cities of Al-Rassan – but for me it’s almost always the characters who make a story. And the three protagonists here are splendid. Their complex, elegant relationship is a joy, in which the bonds of mutual respect are as powerful as more romantic ties. One of the things Helen and I both noted is how many different kinds of love are represented in the book – and each is given equal significance – whether it’s romantic love; Platonic love; the love of soldiers for their leader; husbands and wives; old friends; parents and children. (For me, the connection between Rodrigo and Ammar is Platonic, in its purest form: each of them finds in the other a mirror of his soul; a second self.) Add to this the love of one’s god, one’s country or one’s ideals, and you have a potent dramatic mix. Yet these clever people aren’t swept away by love: they acknowledge its power, but they are intelligent enough to recognise when it is unwise.
The writing, of course, is beautiful. Kay’s books often draw from the literature of the period in which they’re set, and here – though I’m very far from being an expert – the elegantly nostalgic descriptions reminded me of the few medieval Arabic poems I’ve read. Coupled with that is the shadow of the great tradition of the chansons de geste, which at one moment surges out of shadow into an epic flourish. When Rodrigo and Ammar meet in Ragosa, the moment is heralded by a fanfare of prose. And yet, throughout the book, there also runs an enduring, endearing thread of warm humour. I laughed out loud when, contemplating the aftermath of his second regicide, Ammar concludes regretfully that ‘I am increasingly unlikely to be best remembered… for my poetry.’ I have grown to love these characters, and that’s what makes their story so gripping – and, ultimately, so unbearably moving.
In the spirit of honesty, I should mention two minor things which occur to me, much as I adore the book as a whole. As is often the case, these comments merely reflect my preferences as a reader and other people will disagree. And of course I’m going to have to deal in spoilers, so I recommend skipping the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t read the book. First I would say that I find Diego’s visionary abilities slightly distracting, because they introduce a supernatural element to a story which is at its most powerful when suggesting that religion, and the otherworldly, are human constructs which can lead men to behave in tragic ways. Helen noted that the visions felt similar to the presence of divining in Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolò series, which is another example of a brilliant story with a supernatural element that I, personally, found troubling. My innate scepticism is at fault, I think.
The other thing is that I’d actually be happy to conclude the book without the epilogue. For me, the end of that last chapter in the main body of the book is absolute perfection. It reduces me to a quivering wreck. I like books that can do that to me. I like being a quivering wreck. And sometimes it’s no bad thing to finish such a book in such a way without having firm answers (see the end of River of Stars for a very satisfying ending of that sort). But that probably is just me.
Please don’t be misled by the fact that this book will often be categorised as fantasy. It is in the same spirit (indeed, very much the same spirit) as books like Knowledge of Angels; and, if you’ve read and enjoyed that, you should definitely try to get your hands on a copy of this. It also comes highly recommended to those who have an interest in medieval historical fiction or Spanish history. I can honestly say that after reading it I had a better appreciation of political forces in Al-Andalus than I did after a week’s study of the Reconquista during my degree. Maybe the historical parallels don’t matter to you so much? Well; then read this as a book which will simply draw you into a captivating dream of a world, and leave you stricken for words afterwards.
You can find out what Helen thought of the book here.
P.S. Recommended listening after reading the closing chapter of the book (before the epilogue): here. One of my favourite pieces of music. Let’s just pretend that Kingdom of Heaven didn’t steal it first.