The Lions of Al-Rassan: Guy Gavriel Kay

★★★★★

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.

Buy the book

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.

22 thoughts on “The Lions of Al-Rassan: Guy Gavriel Kay

  1. gailwritinglife.com says:

    Well, when you're right, you're right. Also one of my favorites. I do however find the magical elements vital to Kay's books and look for them. With that he binds his books together in his alternate world. The magic does not order the world or solve anyone's problems, often complicates them further. And in Al-Rassan, the epilogue with things settled down for the moment, alas, only for the moment, helped me. Books that make me a shivering wreck are good, I suppose, but I sometimes need help climbing back out of them. But a wonderful critique. Thank you.

  2. Leander says:

    Hello – and thank you so much for stopping to comment! Yes, of course my thoughts above are specific to my own (slightly odd) preferences a reader, and I would say it's a measure of the book's success that it is equally wonderful whether you look for the supernatural elements or take a more secular approach to it. And yes, I am probably the only person in the world who would be happy with 'fade to black' after that final chapter! You are right in that the epilogue offers a much-needed moment of catharsis after we've been through the emotional mangle.

    Very happy to meet someone else who loves this book so much.

  3. Helen says:

    It was a pleasure to read this book with you, Leander, and I'm glad it hadn't lost its impact for you on a second read. I agree with you on the subjects of Diego's visions and the epilogue – those are the only two aspects of the book I was slightly disappointed with…everything else was wonderful and I'm sure I'll want to re-read it sometime in the future too!

  4. Anonymous says:

    I wonder if he put in the epilogue because he got tired of people asking for more of TIGANA. That one he wrote with an open-ended ending, a sort of 'life goes on', and I remember somewhere seeing an interview where he said innumerable people kept reading it as a set up for a sequel – and they nagged him about it (my phrasing)- which he found depressing. he likes one-offs, stand alones. As a reader sick of interminable series I do, too.

    I've always favored his 'northern' book, LAST LIGHT OF THE SUN, which as LIONS is pseudo El Cid Spain, is set mostly in pseudo Alfred the Great England, with Vikings, Welsh and all interacting.

    Elaine T.

  5. Leander says:

    That's actually one of the things I most love about his books – that you can read them as stand-alones (with the honourable exception of the Sarantine Mosaic). Although River of Stars is a follow-on from Under Heaven, you definitely don't have to have read the latter first. And actually I think that it is more difficult to tell a really powerful, moving story in one book rather than settling back to give yourself a series in which to do it. Interesting about the nagging re. Tigana, though. I did not know about that.

    Oh, I enjoyed Last Light very much too. And I've actually grown to appreciate it more and more since, as I've been doing more reading around that period and I can see more of the links between history and fiction. But for me the other pinnacle of his work is Sailing to Sarantium. I can't think of a single thing about that book that I don't love – including the more otherworldly elements which work perfectly with the more exotic, ritualised feel of Byzantium. Gorgeous stuff. And actually, having read Sailing to Sarantium spoiled me for Stella Duffy's Theodora books. I was much more gripped by the alternate-history version. 🙂

  6. Manfred Arcane says:

    Dear Lady,
    I write to honor your gorgeous praise of one of my all-time favorite books. You capture my feelings toward the book perfectly, and I feel us then kindred souls. I want to know from you of other books that meet this standard, but will try to repay you with my own recommendation: “A Creature of the Twilight”, but Russell Kirk. It is in a class with LoAR, though of a different style. As for LoAR, I cannot think of anywhere else in literature (save perhaps in some of Kay's other books) where a like spirit animated the prose. An inordinate amount of my time involves seeking out the next LoAR; so far I have failed miserably.
    I did seek out and read “Knowledge of Angels”, upon your recommendation, and found it well written, but without anywhere near the power or resonance with me as for LoAR.
    Finally, let me thank you for your musical selection at the end of your review. Superb.
    PS. For some reason, I was not able to work my way through either “Last Light of the Sun”, nor “River of Stars”. But I did love, “Song for Arbonne”. I found as I began both of the former books no character or plot thread that captivated me from the beginning. So I gave up. Did I miss out on the later material, do you think?
    Once again, it is rare pleasure to find someone with such exalted taste as you, to share such an exalted work as, “The Lions of Al Rasson”. Well met, Dear Lady.

  7. The Idle Woman says:

    Hello Manfred (please, call me Leander – of course it's flattering to be addressed as 'dear lady', but it's rather formal). I'm so pleased to encounter another fan of this wonderful novel and I'm happy that you enjoyed the music I posted at the end, especially because music can be such a subjective thing and a piece which really sums up a book for one person might be drastically wrong in another's opinion. Thank you for letting me know that you had tried Knowledge of Angels – so often I think that we are very much affected by whichever books we read first. So I read Knowledge of Angels when I was still a teenager and was very moved by it, long before I had heard of Kay's novels. I think I would still have loved it if I'd discovered it more recently but I have no doubt that its impact would have been less.

    Sorry to hear that you haven't got on so well with some of the other books – though as for A Song for Arbonne, I agree, it was lovely. I know that some people consider Last Light to be quite a cold book, because the setting is more austere and the characters also. For my part I rather enjoyed it, but then I daresay the presence of Vikings had something to do with that. I would say that River of Stars and Under Heaven both have a very particular feel – like all Kay's books they are deeply influenced by their setting, and so they are very evocative in the way they conjure up Chinese folklore. I enjoyed both of them very much but if it's a setting that doesn't engage you quite so much, I can understand it might be difficult to lose yourself in the story. Still, I haven't quite loved any of Kay's other books as much as I love The Lions of Al-Rassan and Sailing to Sarantium (the magic of Byzantium keeps me coming back to the latter).

    Have you tried Dorothy Dunnett? (I'm asking this with a slightly wicked glint in my eye because it seems slightly unfair to give someone a six-book series to read if they ask innocently for a recommendation). Her Lymond Chronicles aren't easy but, taken as a whole, they have an emotional clout, a historical comprehension and a lead character of such richness that they really are without compare. Kay is a huge fan of hers – he often cites Dunnett as one of his chief inspirations. But the first book in that series is not easy, as I said. All of her (historical) books are reviewed on here if you want to get more of a feel for them. As I've said before, I think Mary Renault is also extremely good although I don't think that any of her books affected me in quite the same emotional way as Kay and Dunnett have. But maybe that's because I haven't read any of her books for some time.

    Apart from that, I am also always looking for the next novel that can move me in a similar way, so thank you very much for the recommendation of A Creature of the Twilight, which I shall look up with interest – and please do let me know if you come across any other books with a comparable power.

  8. Manfred Arcane says:

    Leander,
    Greetings again, Dear Lady. I more than “enjoyed” Vide Cor Meum, I was transfixed by it, my soul utterly transported and enraptured. I owe you a great debt…which I just might be able to remit in small measure with mine own offering to you: “Thou oh Lord”, by Sisters. You must only listen to it on iTunes, nothing else on Youtube compares even close. And spend the $0.99 to hear it in full. It is not to be believed in its perfection, until heard.
    I will reply later to the rest of your nice message, but now must go to work.

  9. Manfred Arcane says:

    I was intrigued by Ms. Dunnett. About six months ago I investigated her on Amazon, based perhaps on recommendations I encountered on either your web page, or one very much like it. Everything I had read about her principal character and settings intrigued me, and I was all ready to jump in…but then I started reading an episode in Amazon's sampling feature, and it turned me off completely (some byzantium lord had a procession or something, was the excerpt). So now I don't know what to do. I trust your judgement…but was not gratified by my first, albeit brief encounter. Yet maybe I was too quick to judge…

  10. The Idle Woman says:

    Hello Manfred – well, I'm afraid I'm a rabid Dunnett evangelist – but at the same time I can fully appreciate that she's not for everyone. You must have been reading part of Spring of the Ram, set in Trebizond, I think. Funnily enough that's my favourite novel in the Niccolo series. 🙂 She is a very unique writer and she's quite demanding – a lot of the time she just doesn't explain anything, which can be rather frustrating. However, if you do decide to go for it, I'd recommend Lymond rather than Niccolo (start with The Game of Kings), and be prepared for the fact that you will be completely baffled and lost for most of the first book.

    If you have doubts, then don't try her just at the moment. Give it time and if you start getting curious again, try to get one of the books then. She's an author you have to just jump into – there isn't much scope to just dip a toe in, unfortunately.

    Thank you so much for the musical recommendation! I will seek this out with interest, although I haven't had the chance yet.

  11. Manfred Arcane says:

    My musical recommendation is not as good as yours, which was simply divine (how on earth did you come across that piece!), but, if you have a taste for a cappella singing, you will find no better exemplar.
    I will try Dunnett. I will. (You are too credible a witness to her virtues for me not to. Thanks again.) Perhaps first, I will go check out your reviews of her work, this may inspirit me to take the plunge (like into a cold pool of water in late Spring. At first the will wavers, but once in, the body adjusts and revels in the swim.)

  12. Manfred Arcane says:

    Dear Lady,
    I write to inform you that I tried the Lymond series, but only made it half-way through the first book and lost interest. I could not fathom the motives of the 'protagonist', if that is the correct word. The language did put me off too, I must admit. So I guess that is that for the series. But I do have a find for you: Gina Miani's Trilogy on Charles Martel. I finished the first book and am halfway through the second. It is excellent writing that just carries you along. Weaving her story around a towering protagonist who actually changed history in several fundamental ways draws the reader in, but even better, her writing goes down like a cool lemonade on a scorching summer day. It might just be your cup of tea. It is much like the Lions of Al Rassan, and, ironically, it appears that that other novel may have drawn from the same source material in history, as there are clear resonances and common melodies.
    Best Regards,
    MA

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