The Lions of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay

My (admittedly limited) experience with G.G. Kay’s writing has led me to believe that there’s only a 50:50 chance I might like one of his books: I enjoyed Tigana, but when I briefly attempted to read the first volume of the Fionavar Tapestry I found it impossible to accept its premises or to get a real feel for the characters.  (On this point I have to say that a long e-mail discussion with my friend Susan brought me to reconsider and give Fionavar a second chance, because I thought that if a book can elicit such an eloquent and passionate defense from a person whose judgment I trust, I can’t turn a blind eye on it).  But I’m digressing…

The Lions of Al-Rassan is, on the other hand, a beautiful story, one that held my attention from start to finish, even though it’s not immune from some shortcomings – so I guess that the 50:50 rule does indeed apply.

Characters represent the strong foundation of this novel, fashioned after the era when modern-day Spain was a territory shared by Christians and Muslims and also held a flourishing, if constantly endangered, Jewish community. Here these different cultures are represented respectively by Jaddites, Asharites and Kindath, and embodied by Rodrigo Belmonte (a fearless soldier who is almost a legend of the land), Ammar ibn Khairan (poet, warrior and scholar, all rolled into one) and Jehane bet Ishak (dedicated doctor and strong-willed woman of startling modernity). The dynamics behind these characters, the events that shape their story, the complex bonds of love, friendship and loyalty that tie them together as much as drive them apart in a sort of shifting dance, all contribute to make this book the fascinating read that it is: following them as they deal with the unfolding drama of a divided land, trying and failing to find an acceptable balance, is a constant discovery, helped along by G.G. Kay’s rich and elegant narrative. These main characters come across as real, breathing people, and it did not take long for me to grow attached to them, and care for their well-being, as well as that of a few equally unforgettable secondary players, like young Alvar, who is enrolled in Belmonte’s company dreaming of war and glory and soon discovers the darker side of a soldier’s life; or merchant Husari, who is both shrewd and humorous; or again Miranda, Belmonte’s wife, an iron lady whose appearances were much too limited and distanced for my tastes.  Just to name a few, of course.

The throes of a country struggling to find a new shape and a different balance represent the other fascinating magnet of the novel: for a long time Asharites and Jaddites have vied for supremacy with one another, while battling among themselves for power, in a constantly shifting political landscape in which the third party, the Kindath, are trying to survive, always on the lookout for a change in the wind, always dealing with the certainty of the next blow that will fall from above. This side of the story is incredibly modern: to this very day, our world still struggles under the weight of conflicting beliefs – be they political or religious – and there are always those who suffer because they are crushed between rocks and hard places that are too big to avoid. In this the book manages very well to elude the pedantic quicksand of allegory, and presents the reader with a subtle commentary on the human condition, and how certain drives shape our actions and their consequences – it makes you stop and think.

But… There is indeed a “but”, because some of G.G. Kay’s choices in telling this story ruined the overall effect for me.

For example, there are several instances in which he leads the reader to believe that a certain character has been killed: for a good number of pages we observe the scene unfolding under our eyes and the offered clues point to a particular person, only to arrive at the final denouement and discover that it was someone else. The first time that happened I was torn between shock for the unexpected revelation and irritation at having been led astray for so long: somehow it lessened the impact of the actual loss – a character I liked very much, by the way – because I was too busy being annoyed at the deception.  When it happened again I was angry: in my opinion, an author should not make excessive use of such devices – fool me once, ok; fool me twice… I lose all faith in you.  And that’s not the end of it, because G.G. Kay did it once more toward the end of the book, in what should have been the epic encounter that symbolizes the clash of two worlds. But at that point, even the most distracted reader would have been alert and suspicious as I was, not to mention offended by the cheap trick.

To make matters worse, too many events are presented in the form of a teaser (for want of a better word), where a few sibylline words create a cliffhanger, then the story traces back to return – often at a leisurely pace – at the focal point and the resolution of the story-thread: again, it is a valid narrative tool, no argument about that, but it should not be abused in the way it was in this novel.  And last but not least, the epilogue feels somewhat pedantic, with a great deal of explanation and back-story I really had no need for – and let’s not forget a few parting “surprise” revelations, just for the sheer fun of it…

For these reasons I can’t give this book the rating that story and characters should deserve: this could have been a 8/10  or a 9/10 book, but even the finest meal would lose some of its flavor if it was served on a chipped plate, would it not?

My Rating: 7/10


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