When I read The Fionavar Tapestry six years ago, I was totally enamored by it. Kay’s debut series is a high fantasy classic with overtones of Frazer’s Golden Bough. At the time I wrote – rather pompously – that “Kay manages to convey one of the key aspects of a Romantic worldview so, so well: we, mortal humans, are part of a vast Whole that is mysterious, ancient, uncaring and unforgiving. This Whole determines us, but at the same time we determine parts of the Whole too. We cannot expect the Whole to do our bidding, that we have to do ourselves. In acknowledging this, and in doing this bidding, living our lives, there is heroism and honor to be found.”
I still stand by these words, but nevertheless I find myself puzzled by certain aspects of The Lions of Al-Rassan that tie into said Romanticism: the ethics of violent heroism and honor as it is portrayed in Kay’s sixth novel – considered by many to be his best, in tandem with 1990’s Tigana.
I didn’t finish Tigana, abandoning it quickly because I couldn’t get over its obvious artificial nature, and because something in the prose didn’t ring true. Maybe I should have persisted, but either way I’m glad I didn’t give up on Kay because of it: The Lions Of Al-Rassan made my cry three times – once even for the duration of a couple of pages. No mean feat, no mean feat at all. So while I will raise some critical questions in this review, make no mistake about it: I enjoyed this book very, very much, and if historical fantasy is something you enjoy, do not hesitate to try Al-Rassan yourself.
The novel leans heavily on the Reconquista of Spain, which took about 4 centuries, but Kay compresses it into a single lifetime. Its setting resembles the Iberian peninsula, but the Muslims, Christians and Jews go by other names. Kay himself has talked about the benefits of historical fantasy as a genre:
First of all the genre allows the universalizing of a story. It takes incidents out of a very specific time and place and opens up possibilities for the writer – and the reader – to consider the themes, the elements of a story, as applying to a wide range of times and places. It detaches the tale from a narrow context, permits a stripping away, or at least an eroding of prejudices and assumptions. And, paradoxically, because the story is done as a fantasy it might actually be seen to apply more to a reader’s own life and world, not less. It cannot be read as being only about something that happened, say, seven hundred years ago in Spain.
I’m not sure I agree, at least, not in the case of Al-Rassan, because it is all so instantly recognizable as Spain somewhere in the 11 to 15th century, and if you’re a wee bit familiar with European history, the Kindath clearly are Jews, the Asharites clearly Muslims and the Jaddites clearly Christians.
That does not mean Kay didn’t manage to write a story about universal themes: the “interplay between bigotry and tolerance”, the “uses and misuses of religion for political ends” and “the real price of war paid in bloodshed, loss and grief.”
He did write something universal, but not because the story was fictionalized in a world with two moons, and names and some other stuff was changed. I think the story is universal simply because these themes are universal in and by themselves. The fact that Kay turned it into a successful story doesn’t have that much to do with the chosen genre but simply with his narrative craft, authorial decisions and excellent prose.
As for genre: I should warn potential readers with a narrow taste that this book hardly features magic or other tropes specific to (high) fantasy. There’s the two moons that just serve as a backdrop, and one sole instance of precognition that drives a crucial part of the story. That’s it. But there are assassins, horses, palaces, and sword-fighting. And because Kay does all that extremely well, most fans should get their kicks even without dragons, demons or fire-bolts.
I’ve written about the ethics of violence in fiction before, most notably in an essay on Yoon Ha Lee’s Raven Stratagem. I don’t mind escapism via fictional violence, but while I was reading The Lions of Al-Rassan a certain doubt slowly emerged.
The book has some fairly brutal scenes, with realistic depictions of violent transgressions. While Al-Rassan is not grimdark at all, children being maimed and killed just for battle tactics isn’t often depicted in fiction.
My beef is not with the violence itself, on the contrary, I applaud Kay for including it, because I think it makes the book more realistic, and it helps to present its themes with more urgency. War is horrific, and what happened in Al-Rassan happened in Spain, and is happening now in Ukraine and Yemen and.
My beef – or rather, my doubt – has to do with the perpetrators of said violence. Two of the main characters are depicted as heroes. Both Rodrigo Belmonte – a mercenary captain based on El Cid – and Ammar ibn Khairan – a courtier, poet, strategist & assassin – are presented as nuanced, intelligent, thoughtful, honest, and loving. At the same time, they don’t flinch killing others.
I’m not naive. Context does matter. These were the Middle Ages. War and extremism were more prevalent. Today, other moral laws apply than in Moorish Spain. And today, other moral laws probably apply in Ukraine & Yemen than in Belgium, Germany or France.
But even with all that in mind, it’s somehow puzzling Kay managed to evoke sympathy for Rodrigro or Ammar. Technically, I understand how he did it. They are manly men, strong, smart, caring for their own, and loved by the female main characters. We get to know them and their families. We root for them. What male reader secretly doesn’t want to turn out to be “the unacknowledged son of the King”, to paraphrase Richard Rorty? Dreams of power and glory are all too human, and Kay exploits them expertly.
I also understand that other characters call these warrior-murderers “good” and “noble” – again, that is the context these characters live in, and these feelings echo nationalist or religious mantras that are still used today. Said fictional context was also the context my consciousness was transported to for 504 pages.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I can’t make up my mind what I rationally think about our heroes. Is Rodrigo really a loving father if he’s absent from his family for years? If he willingly puts himself into mortal danger while he could have retired just as easily? Does Ammar deserve his ending? And how do I feel about Kay for writing a story that presents these pragmatically cruel characters as likeable, even though he also presents us characters such as Alvar and Jehane who are critical of war and bloodshed?
True – everything is grey, and reality is what it is. There are smooth criminals, sympathetic murderers, democratic elected officials that order bloodshed, and every soldier is indeed human. I know all this. But I’m conflicted about it. I guess I’m conflicted about reality? Do I kid myself when I think I would not commit atrocities beyond what’s needed for self-defense or defense of my family in a real life war context? Even if I don’t believe in free will, shouldn’t we hold soldiers and their generals to higher standards?
In the end, while Kay’s message of tolerance and diversity is to be applauded, and certain brutal scenes of heroic life & death and brought me to deep and heartfelt tears, at the same time, he wrote a feelgood book, ending with most of the protagonists happy together, sipping wine, celebrating a birthday, cosy by a fountain.
So there’s a conflict at the heart of The Lions of Al-Rassan. At one hand, Kay criticizes bigotry & political greed for the suffering it causes, and luckily he tries to present a balanced view of why these things happen, never pointing fingers at people that are terrified of the Other or blinded by their upbringing. But on the other hand, it also revels in the heroism associated with warriors and violence, and glorifies it to a certain extent.
It may not have been his intention, and it probably is the unavoidable result of trying to show the human side of things. As for historical fantasy’s true benefit: it’s probably easier to do when there is historical distance – imagine a book published in 6 months, that tries to balance a certain Russian soldier as a hero too.
It is exactly that idea that hints at the moral conundrum. Contemporary books about the past obviously are also about today, so with that in mind, a question presents itself: are today’s wars heroic & glorious as well? Propagandists from all sides answer that question with a resounding yes. Some people, sheltered in basements, will say so too, while others, huddled in the same basement, will disagree. Then again, as characters remark multiple times in The Lions of Al-Rassan: do the answers to these questions really matter?
Let me end this section with the words of Guy Gavriel Kay again, a speech he gave in 1999:
I am not saying (…) that [historical fantasy] is the only honourable way to approach the matter of the past. What I am offering is the notion that fantasy has the potential to be one such way of addressing the issues that the past so often throws at the present day. It isn’t just an evasion, an escape, a hiding from truths of the world: it can be an acknowledgment that those truths are complex, morally difficult, and that many different sorts of techniques and processes may lead to a book’s resonating deeply for a reader and a time.
Many years ago, the poet and critic, Douglas Barbour, described a fantasy he admired as, ‘The kind of escape that brings you home.’
The book is almost 30 years old, and has hardly aged. There’s one thing that bears pointing out though: today, writing a book about religious wars would be a moral minefield. I don’t think The Lions of Al-Rassan would have fully passed today’s sensitivities. I have to stress Kay tries to offer a balanced view, and nearly always succeeds doing so: none of the religious factions are presented in simple black and white terms. But honesty compels me to note that I felt his portrayal of Muslims in Northern Africa bordered on the stereotypical, in a negative way – the vicious, cruel, tribal enemy. Part of that is that they don’t get much page time, and as such this can be forgiven, all the more since the Asharites (Muslims) living on the fictional Spanish landmass are presented in a nuanced way. And while there is this whiff of stereotype, it needs to be said that there is no finger pointing whatsoever, and Kay explicitly grounds the Muwardi’s motivations in human feelings too.
Some have complained about too much sex scenes. I counted 5 of them, and 2 additional off page, and I think they do serve a purpose in a story about men and women. The Lions of Al-Rassan is partly romance too, and the inclusion of both strong female characters and sexual encounters do make the story more realistic. Eros & thanatos indeed.
Some have complained about Kay’s tendency to visibly withhold information at certain times. I agree the trick is used often, but not to the extent it bothered me, and while it was visible and showed the book’s construction, it simply worked to create tension.
It needs to be stressed that Kay controls a complex plot with lots of characters expertly. While there is some drag around the halfway point, and certain things are maybe repeated too often, the book picks up steam again quickly, and offers a thrilling, emotional ride onto the very end, that ties all strands together.