THE LIONS OF AL-RASSAN – Guy Gavriel Kay (1995)

The Lions of Al-Rassan

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.


Al-Rassan map

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28 responses to “THE LIONS OF AL-RASSAN – Guy Gavriel Kay (1995)

  1. So, you like the inclusion of ultraviolence and sex.

    Sounds about right for people nowadays 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s not really ultraviolence, just to be clear. And the sex scenes were okay, but I wouldn’t say I enjoyed them.

      Not sure if people nowadays are different on those fronts from people throughout history.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was giving you crap and being sarcastic. Sorry that didn’t come through 😀

        One of my cousins has read enough Kay and reviewed them that I know he’s not an author for me. I was quite shocked when I learned he was involved with Christopher Tolkien and the Silmarillion (I think it was that book), as my impression from the reviews of him were of a anti-Tolkien writer in terms of fantasy.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ha, yes, it did came through. But I like answering with a straight face as retaliation 🙂

          I wouldn’t call him anti-Tolkien. Fionavar is heavily influenced by it. I would think that you’d like it. The rest maybe not so much, not sure, this might be too liberal for you.

          Does your cousin have a blog too?

          Liked by 1 person

          • He’s on devilreads. Hang on, let me see if I can dig up his link:

            Not sure if his old stuff is there or not though.

            I’ve seen enough reviews to know that Kay isn’t for me. Maybe back in the day when there wasn’t as much proliferation, but I wouldn’t voluntarily go for it now as I have so many choices.

            Liked by 2 people

            • I cannot guarantee you’d like it, but Fionavar is, in my opinion, distinctly different from Kay’s later novels. I decided he paid his homage to his master, JRR, before going his own way in Tigana and the rest of his works. I enjoy both his phases, but the later one was definitely more… libertine ;)?

              Liked by 2 people

  2. Very interesting discussion Bart. I tried Kay once, I heard Under Heaven, and it didn’t do much for me, but perhaps I should give Kay another try.

    What he says about historical fantasy, how it makes historical themes universal by setting it in a fantasy setting, I’ve heard that same argument used for ALL heroic/epic fantasy. Actually, by making it historical fantasy, Kay actually makes it harder for himself to divorce the themes from the historical context. There are plenty of fantasy epics that have middle-eastern settings and take up middle-eastern themes without connecting it to our history.

    And thinking of that and re:the violence, the current Malazan book I am reading enters the same territory but Erikson deals with it differently. Erikson was trained as both an archeologist and anthropologist, and while his fantasy world is full high, secondary-world fantasy with no bearing on our world, the peoples he invents are inspired by his academic knowledge. I am reading chapters now that feature warfare between tribes similar to American Indians and many readers have objected to a certain horrific sexual punishment that he included in the book. But Erikson defends himself by saying that that punishment was actually used in real life in our world. And he wrote it for the victims, that we should not turn our eyes from it because the very real victims in the world deserve no less. Because it is a truth of our world. Plus, he skewers the idea of the noble savage and also presents no character as noble. He presents everyone from a neutral distance and lets the reader make up their mind if they want to root for someone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I have Under Heaven on my TBR, and River of Stars. Either way those are going to be my last Kays, as I got the impression his more recent work isn’t on par with his prime output.

      Re: historical fantasy making it harder even than regular fantasy, I hadn’t thought it through that far, but you are absolutely right.

      From what I’ve read of Mazalan I think Erikson indeed approaches it a bit differently, painting his characters with a less sympathetic brush. Same goes for what I’ve read of Glen Cooke.

      Any details on the punishment you mention? I always find it a bit puzzling readers object to violence in a genre that primarily is about violence, although I can understand that certain things are too much for some. I get it people don’t want to expose themselves to gruesome violence, but that just exposes the artificiality of most fantasy: when it becomes too real, some people bail out. I have no problem with that, as long as these people don’t kid themselves and claim they are reading about reality in a fantasy setting to justify their escapist hobby.


  3. Excellent review of a book I’ve long loved (and shed many tears over). You’ve nailed my ambivalence about Rodrigo in particular – and maybe nudged me towards an overdue reread.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, appreciated! Indeed, it’s especially Rodrigo I’m conflicted about, Ammar to a lesser extent, because Ammar is from the onset less presented as ‘good’ but as ‘clever’, and probably also because he, in the end, belongs the Other category for the European reader I am.


    • But those tears, that was really something. It has been a long time since a book made me cry so intensely. Part of that was obviously father-son stuff and father-daughter stuff now that I’m a parent myself, but either way, it still took my by surprise.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I see that you are currently reading “Flow my Tears”. Looking forward to your review. It was a childhood favorite, though I suspect/fear now I might hate it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Might not be for another two weeks, also reading something else atm. The more I read PKD and talk about him with fans, I get the impression that PKD is the kind of author that is especially read during one’s teens and early twenties. In that sense he is formative, but he’s also abandoned later, at least, lots of his work is, and most people only recommended 1, 2 or 3 books while they have read most of his oeuvre.


      • That is a bang-on description. I would only recommend 2-3 at this point.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Which one would you recommend? It also seems the answers to that question are pretty diverse.


          • If you had to put a gun to my head (or my 20 year old self) I would have gone with “Three Stigmata” “Ubik” “Now Wait for Last Year” “Time out of joint” “Flow my Tears” and odd ball to the list “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer”. There were a couple that, despite their popularity, I never liked – “Man in the High Castle” and “Martian Time Slip”. Now, almost all of them seem like they were written for the twist end – Except maybe “Timothy Archer” and “Flow my Tears”

            Liked by 1 person

  5. I remember saying that G.G. Kay was a 50:50 author for me, because I never know how I might react to his works: I read Tigana long ago and while I remember liking it, I have totally forgotten what it was about – and that should be enlightening enough; and my attempts at Fionavar ended both times with me abandoning the book. On the other hand, I did enjoy Lions of al-Rassan, because of its epic/historical quality, but still I had some qualms with the author’s narrative choices, like faking characters’ deaths several times, or leaving important issues with a cliffhanger, only to return to the situation later on – much later. So I came to the conclusion that he’s not the “right” author for me: still, I very much enjoyed revisiting this book through your eyes, and reconnecting with the details I appreciated.
    Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I’ve read your review of Rassan, and I can see where you are coming from. I wouldn’t go as far and say he fakes characters’ death, but I understand what you mean, because he at least gives the impression or leaves things out in the open. Because I read your and others’ reviews, I knew these things were coming, and because of that I might have experienced them otherwise, being a bit more foregiving as I thought ‘this isn’t so bad as these reviews make it seem’. So I guess I need to thank you as well! 🙂
      Do you remember why you abandoned Fionavar? I absolutely loved that, especially the first one, also because it reminded me a bit of the D&D cartoon that I loved so much in my youth.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s been some time since I tried to read Fionavar, so my recollection of what little I read is more than hazy, but what I remember clearly is my frustration with the characters, particularly with their ready acceptance of the wizard’s “invitation” to journey to his mythical realm, and with their somewhat offhand acceptance of the weirdness and wonders of the place. I guess it all felt contrived to me, which saddened me because the saga had been recommended by a friend who loves it, and whose tastes often dovetail with mine, so I guess that was one of the exceptions…

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes I guess you are right, you do have to get over that initial set-up. I didn’t really mind because I didn’t approach it as realism to begin with and maybe approached it in a more cartoon fashion, which tends to be more forgiving of such matters, and paradoxically that resulted in some deep/real emotions once the journey was going.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m with La Maddalena on Kay. I have a love-hate relationshiph with him. When he tones back, just a little, the romance vibe I can get into him. The characters are usually 3D, and plot and pacing are steady and surprising. But when Kay steps over that romance line just a little, I flinch, and my stomach turns. The eye gazing, the heavy foreshadowing, the soap opera sex, etc., I struggle. And it starts to make me aware of the faux-historical vibe. It’s f$%^ing France or Spain, for goodness sake, not some secondary fantasy world. With time I find myself more often turning away. Kay hasn’t changed his style in any way, and if anything, has dug deeper into the romance vibe.

    I see that you believe his two “Chinese” novels will be the last Kay novels you read. I hope you enjoy them. Given the consistency of style, Kay doesn’t have a stand out “best”, but the Chinese novels, along with Lions are my personal favorites. The other one I consider on par with those is The Last Light of the Sun. It doesn’t get a lot of mention, but it goes lighter on the romance stuff, focusing instead on a Viking family saga. I almost cried. 🙂

    By the way, I like your self-quote regarding The Summer Tree. Sure, maybe it’s “pompous”, but so too is Kay’s style. More importantly, I think it captures the essence of the book, not to mention draws a clear connection to work with Tolkien’s son. Anyway… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the faux history is more a thing of convenience for Kay than anything else, in the sense that if he would write true historical fiction, everything would need to check out, and you get the kind of readers that point at every accidental historical inaccuracy. Means more research and less freedom to manoeuvre as a writer, even if you write about made up characters in a true context. Probably also because he came from fantasy and he kind of stuck with that (and his audience).

      Good the read you liked the Chinese novels too. I haven’t actually heared of The Last Light of the Sun, I’m going to look into that, I’ve never actually read any Viking book, so that might scratch an itch I didn’t even know I had.


  7. Thanks for the link, Bart! 😀

    I’m not especially fond of Kay, having only read Tigana and not liking it 😉 but I might give this a chance.

    I would love to discuss the issue of war in culture and human perception at length, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to, being on WP once a week or less 😉 I’d say though that humans struggled with the phenomenon of war since forever, and only recently we’ve come to build this sanitized glorious image of war where you can be a hero that’s 100% good. War is never good. That’s why even in ancient times the concept of just and unjust war was introduced, I think, to give war some kind of moral justification. The question whether human behavior in war can be measured by the same yardstick as the behavior in peace is a separate one, I think – as is the question of the cost – and possibility – of ever coming back to normal for a regular person. Anyways, a very interesting review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes it would have been interesting to go over these issue some more with somebody that has your expertise. I didn’t realize the glorious hero is a recent concept, I would have thought it was millennia old.

      I guess some wars are more just than others, or at least, for some nations to get involved with a war somebody else started, can be more just than others, but in the end the morals are always troubling.

      And human behavior during war: another can of worms indeed, and separate issue.

      It seems most people seem to like Lions, even if there other encounters with Kay weren’t successful.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. High praise indeed! Huh, so if I liked Tigana a lot, I’m going to simply love this one? Maybe it’s time for the next Kay, I take him in doses, but I never regretted taking one 🙂

    “I know all this. But I’m conflicted about it. I guess I’m conflicted about reality” – I often feel similar way and I made my peace with that. What annoys me in Kay is that he often goes too easy on his protagonists. On one level, I’m happy for them, as he writes very likeable heroes, but sometimes it’s just a bit too sweet…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d say you’ll like this a lot, given the caveats – you are very right about him going easy on his protagonists. Love, no idea. I hope you read it one day so we can compare notes.

      Liked by 1 person

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