The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay
Posted December 15, 2010on:
Published in 1996, The Lions of Al-Rassan is not a new book, but it is easily the most moving book I have read this year. If the end of this book doesn’t bring you to tears or compel you to find your loved ones and hold them close, there may be something very wrong with you. That’s a fuzzy photo of my copy. See the bent cover? The stressed spine? I felt it was important to show the how loved this little book has been in my household.
The Peninsula of Al-Rassan isn’t that unusual. In every square, tavern and temple the poets, singers, and clerics tell anyone who will listen of the romance of the battlefield. Of how the gods smile on warriors, of the honor, glory, and spoils of war. But the two most famous warriors of Al-Rassan know better. They know that war provides none of these things. All war does is take.
I better say it early on, this is not a book about war. This is not an action story, it is not epic fight scene after epic fight scene. This is a book about what strained loyalties can force men and women to do. The war is just the backdrop, The Lions of Al-Rassan is a love story.
The northern realms of Al-Rassan are the home of the Jaddites, worshipers of the Sun who follow the only true path to paradise. The southern realms and the lands across the sea are home to the Asharites, worshipers of the stars, who follow the only true path to heaven. Here and there can be found the Kindath, semi-nomadic followers of the two moons of the sky. A religious minority, they can only hope to be tolerated wherever they choose to live. The northernmost and southernmost areas of Al-Rassan are fervently religious, while the city-states in the central areas are contemporary and secular, more interested in trade than temples.
In the first few chapters, Kay introduces us to a lot of people very fast, but quickly narrows it down to three main characters:
Jehane, daughter of the mutilated and disabled famous physician Ishak. The only female Kindath physician in the city-state of Fezana, Jehane studied under her father for 20 years before taking over his practice. Her skills are well known. These last four years she has followed a vow to destroy the man who mutilated her father.
Ammar ibn Khairan – A famous Asharite diplomat and poet, he advised and killed for one King, only to be humiliated and exiled by the next. While he dreams of retirement, Ammar makes his living doing what he has done most of his life – advising, assassinating, and occassionly writing poetry.
Captain Rodrigo Belmonte – always looking towards the days he can spend at home with his wife and children, Rodrigo has been involved with the politics of the northern kingdom of Valledo in Esperana his whole adult life. After an accusation regarding the demise of the previous Velledan King and the death of a powerful member of court, Rodrigo finds himself exiled with only his greatest enemy to protect his family.
On The Day of the Moat, the most sorrowful day in living memory, Jehane, Ammar, and Rodrigo find their lives utterly changed and shattered. As the high clerics in the northernmost and southernmost realms preach holy war and their Kings see an opportunity for a war of conquest, these three adults of drastically different backgrounds flee to Ragosa, the most secular city on the Peninsula. The King of Ragosa offers Ammar and Rodrigo mercenary contracts to protect the city, and Jehane is welcomed as a new court physician.
When the peoples of the Peninsula go mad with fear, how can three reasonable people keep the lands they love from burning? Ammar and Rodrigo are the most respected diplomats in their homelands, and even with the pleadings of their kings are they powerful enough to bring people back to their senses?
Kay’s prose is as detailed, as flowing, and as mesmerising as a courtyard fountain. We get to know the Peninsula and it’s peoples by travelling and meeting them. By being a fly on the wall during war councils and secret meetings. Even in peacetimes, the Kings and governors of the city states of Al-Rassan depend on courtly manipulations and deceptions to rule over their neighbors, and now the stakes are much, much higher. In the face of holy war, what matters ones personal beliefs or love for their family? In the face of holy war, how can love survive, how can anything worth anything survive?
There is so much more I want to tell you, but the best gift I can give you is to make you discover it by yourself by reading The Lions of Al Rassan.
Kay is as nuanced as his characters – first he gives you no reason to love these people. Then he gives you every reason to love them. Then he breaks your heart. Then he gives you passages like this:
“It’s one thing to make war for your country, your family, even in pursuit of glory. It’s another to believe that the people you fight are embodiments of evil and must be detroyed for that. I want this peninsula back. I want Esperana great again, but I will not pretend that if we smash Al-Rassan and all it has built we are doing the will of any god I know.”
In our real lives we are beyond a chivalrous, ficticious, fractured Al-Rassan and its echoes of a familiar Renaissance culture. Go watch some international news and tell me how far beyond it we are.