Reviewed: The Lions of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay (1995)

Reviewed - The Lions of Al-Rassan - Guy Gavriel KayAl-Rassan once stood at the height of civilization. Under the rule of the Caliphs, the kingdom prospered, valuing the finer things allowed in times of peace: poetry, architecture, simple pleasures.

That has all changed.

Now lesser beasts rule the broken peninsula of Al-Rassan. The Asharite city states lie to the south, clinging to the old glory of Al-Rassan. The Jaddite kingdoms rule to the north, gaining strength and courage from the waning rule of the Asharites. In between them, the Kindath wander, looking for a place to live in peace and without persecution.

Much of Kay’s fictional work is based on historical events and geography. The Lions of Al-Rassan parallels the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula by Christians from Muslim rule. The story features people of three faiths based on the Muslims (the Asharites), the Jewish people (the Kindath) and Christians (the Jaddites), though there is no obvious resemblance to any of these faiths.

A Kindath physician, an Asharite poet and a Jaddite captain find themselves in each other’s company after events beyond their control throw them together in Al-Rassan. Their friendship and respect for each other break down age old barriers of faith and historical bloodshed. But when a holy war looms on the horizon, each will have to choose where their allegiance falls: with faith, family or country. Al-Rassan tells the story of these three extraordinary individuals – Jehane, Ammar and Rodrigo – and the hard choices they have to make in changing times.

Al-Rassan is equal parts good storytelling and political and religious commentary. Don’t worry Reader, you won’t feel like you’re being preached to. Kay’s commentary is subtle and comes through the story’s themes and character arcs. If it has a ‘point,’ it is only to make one think.

The story begins with a heavy dose of exposition that lasts the first two or three chapters. It’s a bit overwhelming and, frankly, boring. I couldn’t keep track of many of the names and historical conflicts that ‘needed’ to be outlined to set up the story. However, if you push through this, and once the story is in full swing, it doesn’t matter. You eventually get the gist of it and can enjoy the character interactions and conflicts without worrying about the details.

My favourite part of the story was learning of the protagonists’ thoughts on the worldly conflict as it unfolded. For most of us things like politics, war, and religious conflict are far away things; things we learn about and maybe even think of and care about, but in the end it’s all so far from our day to day lives. The things that occupy our minds are common everyday things, like love, family, friends and work. This is regardless of creed and race. This trait is reflected in the story’s protagonists, despite their deep connection with the worldly conflict.

If you like history, war, political intrigue and books that make you think and feel, give The Lions of Al-Rassan a read.

Leave a Reply