Tag Archives: Guy Gavriel Kay

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.

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THE DARKEST ROAD – Guy Gavriel Kay (1986)

The Darkest RoadThe Fionavar Tapestry trilogy declines in quality throughout. It’s not a big decline, but a decline it is. The Summer Tree is spectacular. The Wandering Fire is still top-notch, yet the first book remains the better. The Darkest Road however doesn’t merit 5 out of 5 stars anymore: let’s say a solid 3.5 instead.

Using a word like “decline” in the first paragraph doesn’t do these books justice, so let me be loud & clear: taken as a whole, The Fionavar Tapestry is highly recommended, and one of the classic series of the genre.

I’ll briefly formulate a few reasons that made reading the third book the lesser experience: there’s a structural issue, a prose problem, and one plot weakness. I’ll conclude with writing a bit about the main theme and Kay’s metaphysics.

Most of what I wrote in the reviews of the first and second book remains true. The Darkest Road doesn’t change style or substance. Since I loved what Kay wrote in the first two books, that’s mainly a strength, but maybe it’s a weakness too, as book three is more of the same. It doesn’t add a lot to the previous two books. While The Wandering Fire deepened the world and the characters, The Darkest Road simply follows the story to its expected conclusion: a big battle. Not that that battle plays out fully as expected, but still, The Darkest Road is very much a concluding volume, neatly tying every narrative thread.

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THE WANDERING FIRE – Guy Gavriel Kay (1986)

The Wandering FireThe Summer Tree, the first book of The Fionavar Tapestry, was gripping & amazing. It gutted me. As the series is regarded as one of the classics of fantasy, it is no surprise that The Wandering Fire was a feast as well. My review of The Summer Tree applies to this book too:  The Wandering Fire continues the story, and has the same strengths as Kay’s debut. I’ll elaborate a bit on some of those – language & emotion – , and discuss a few themes that are deepened in this second book. Naturally, I more than look forward to reading The Darkest Road, the concluding volume.

This book is written in not too long sentences that flow easily into one and another, yet often have an archaic, solemn character. Content and form are aligned: the prose fits the subject matter that is heavily infused with all kinds of myths & legends – even King Arthur makes his appearance in Fionavar. Guy Gavriel Kay is an expert of the simple but effective image. Expect no elaborate similes or lengthy descriptions, but beautiful, precise miniatures, like these:

The lofty words rose and then fell into silence, like waves breaking around the King’s rock-still face.


She closed her eyes. Moonlight made a marble statue of her, pale and austere.


The sword of the giant urgach crashed in an arc that seemed to bruise the very air.

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THE SUMMER TREE – Guy Gavriel Kay (1984)

The Summer Tree…but not even the gods may shape exactly what they will, and some say that this truth is at the heart of the whole long tale. 

It happened again! I finished a book by an author I hadn’t read, and my TBR-pile suddenly expanded with potentially 10 volumes. It’s daunting, yet comforting too: despite me writing a fair share of lukewarm reviews of supposed classics & books that are generally praised, it seems unlikely that I’ll run out of good books soon. The Summer Tree is the debut of Canadian writer Guy Gavriel Kay, and the first book of The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. It is not an original book, but it’s a genuine treat nonetheless.

Kay borrows heavily from lots of sources: the Fionavar world resembles Tolkien’s (the greedy dwarves are in decline, there are graceful, near immortal elves, and there’s the threat of a dark, powerful god once defeated returning), Zelazny’s Amber (an original first world with a pattern of which all other worlds, including our Earth, are shadowy reflections), and generally myths from around the world, like the theme of a barren, dry land made fertile again by the sacrifice of the King, described at the end of the 19th century by Frazer in the classic, highly influential study The Golden Bough – a theme central to the story of this volume.

The fact that Frazer sprang to my mind is no coincidence: The Summer Tree is steeped in the Romantic tradition, as is, arguably, most – if not all – high fantasy. So, why, despite the fact that one can make a pretty solid case for this book to be generic in most of its aspects, was I blown away by it? Continue reading