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.