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.