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In the turbulent region that used to be the stable empire of Al-Rassan, petty kings vie for power. Each of these rulers is ambitions and clever, but none of them has been able to acquire his position without the help of others — crafty advisors, brave army commanders, brilliantly inventive doctors, devoted wives and children — and sometimes the same people who have served them well are the same ones who may later cause their downfall.
The Lions of Al-Rassan is the story of a few of these people, how they worked for (and sometimes against) the rulers they pledged to serve, and how they brought about the rise and fall of nations. The infamous Ammar ibn Khairan — King Almalik’s soldier, advisor, assassin, and poet — is known as the man who assassinated the last Khalif of al-Rassan. The notorious Rodrigo Belmonte — King Ramiro’s best commander — is the most feared soldier in the region. Jehane bet Ishak, a woman who’s ahead of her time, is the stubborn but brilliant daughter of a famous physician. These three, who share different religious beliefs but the same uncompromising personal standards, will have a profound effect on each other and the fate of an empire — not just because of what they do, but also because of their influence on the people they meet along the way.
Like Guy Gavriel Kay’s other works, The Lions of Al-Rassan is well-researched historical fiction (this one hardly counts as fantasy). The setting is similar to the Reconquista and the Crusades of Moorish Spain, though the religions Kay uses are not actually based on Christianity, Judaism and Islam (even though the character and place names sound like they are). Also like Kay’s other stories, The Lions of Al-Rassan is full of political intrigue, romance, poetry and lots of passion. The setting is epic, the characters are epic, and the conflict is epic, but rather than focusing on the grand picture with its galloping armies and bloody battles, Kay has us view a series of small significant moments in which the acts of our three heroes, who learn to love each other despite their differences, influence the big events.
If you’ve read any GGK at all, you know that he loves to create vivid characters that are worthy of the grand settings they find themselves in. His villains are ambitious, brutal, and ruthless. His heroes are brilliant, clever, subtle, witty, dangerous, ahead of their time, and multi-talented (e.g., Ammar ibn Khairan is an excellent fighter, diplomat, advisor, scholar, poet, and lover). Nobody wants to read about dull characters, but Kay’s characters are so impressive that they stretch the bounds of belief. They’re also incredibly introspective and philosophical. They regularly spend pages at a time talking to themselves in their own heads — considering their feelings, reflecting on their past successes and failures, analyzing the motives and behaviors of others, and contemplating the future.
As much as I admire Kay’s characters, sometimes I wish they would stop thinking and just get a move on. The Lions of Al-Rassan could have used a little more action; much of the conflict resolution actually occurs off-screen between the last chapter and the epilogue. Kay elevates the tension and drama by using cliffhangers, intentionally withholding information, and even playing a trick on the reader in the epilogue. While I’ve read most of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, I haven’t been able to completely embrace his style which is somewhat melodramatic and manipulative and, therefore, intrudes into the story as if it were a character in its own right.
If you’re a fan of Kay’s work, The Lions of Al-Rassan will almost certainly please you — Kay uses the same formula here, just in a different setting with a different plot. His characters are bold and full of life, and they live and love in a tumultuous world.
The audio version of The Lions of Al-Rassan, recently produced by Audible Frontiers, is outstanding. Euan Morton, who also read A Song for Arbonne, has the required strong masculine voice, yet reads the female roles well, too. His voice is suitably dramatic (yet not overly so) and his pace and cadence are flawless. This was a great production and highly recommended. I do suggest having a list of character names to view, however, because many of them sound similar at first.
Originally posted at FanLit.
23 of 24 people found this review helpful
Would you consider the audio edition of The Lions of Al-Rassan to be better than the print version?
I'd say yes, but unfortunately a lot of the names of people and places in this book are phonetically similar to the point of confusion. Only towards the end of the full recording did I begin to finally separate the characters and places in my head. The pacing was also slightly hurried in parts that could use more attention. The reading was fantastic, but after hearing Simon Vance's reading of Tigana, it's hard not to keep such a standard in mind for comparison.
What was one of the most memorable moments of The Lions of Al-Rassan?
The part of the Echoing Valley. That's all I'll say to not give more away.
Which character – as performed by Euan Morton – was your favorite?
It is most definitely a tie between Rodrigo Belmonte and Ammar ibn Khairan. Rodrigo's character was simple on the surface, but his development and the care Euan Morton gave in the reading complimented him well. Where the performer shined was in his portrayal of Ammar. It was sheer poetry in the strictest sense. I can't say enough about these two characters. They both hold a solid place in my heart.
If you were to make a film of this book, what would be the tag line be?
The Circling Paths of Love and War, As traced Across Both Time and The Heavens.
Any additional comments?
Maybe the people written about in this novel lived in an extraordinary time. I say that because everyone seemed so amazing and so complicated in motivation. At times though, I found myself suspending my disbelief just to go with the momentum of the book. I suppose I'd say that the story is more poetic than realistic. I feel this book would help bridge huge chasms in understanding between different religions and cultures, even those considered extremist and violent. All the cultures portrayed proved to be violent and fearful in their own ways, but then again they all had strong moral and artistic values they held in high esteem just as we all do today. It makes me feel as though my personal belief system could be small-minded, but still valid in it's own right.
There are a lot of authors whose work I read or listen too, but part of me feels like I can truly identify with Guy Gavriel Kay; like we're brothers of a sort, even if we may be from different walks of life. Sometimes his work is a stretch for me, but there's such a poetic depth to it that any small qualms I have can easily be overlooked. I also feel no medium other than printed page or spoken word could do his work justice. Even with the largest budget, putting faces to these (at times) mythical characters would rob them of the power and vitality they hold in in print and in voice.
In short, I recommend this story, but not as much as I recommend _all_ of Mr. Kay's stories. I couldn't wait to get back here to purchase another book. Thanks for reading this far, and I hope that you'll enjoy The Lions of Al-Rassan as much and as truly as I did.
13 of 14 people found this review helpful
You fall in love with each character as there life unfolds. Each poem will touch you with their beauty and aching emotion. A transportation into a land I know, where I have lived and been touched and transformed in beauty. Thank you master Bard. You always touch my soul.
I enjoyed this but it was odd towards the end. It feels like he was setting up a long story and could have been more than one volume. But then he just rushed to the end as not interested anymore and just needed to get to the end. Odd
I don't think any words I could write would do this book justice. I'm grateful you don't have to be capable of creating great beauty in order to appreciate that created by others. I thank Guy for sharing his beautiful creations with the world. This one is my favourite. Even after a dozen 'readings'.