Review: The Lions of Al-Rassan

Guy Gavriel Kay’s sixth novel, The Lions of Al-Rassan is a work strongly influenced by real history, a story about inevitability, tolerance and the dream of sociocultural plurality. Set in a version of Moorish Spain, with the south of the peninsula controlled by a decadent, weakening dynasty of Islamic-coded Asharites and the north by splintered Christian-coded Jaddite kingdoms, it centres on three characters on three different sides of the impending holy war: the Asharite courtier and strategist Ammar ibn Khairan; the Jaddite captain Rodrigo Belmonte; and the doctor Jehane bet Ishak, a member of the persecuted, Jewish-coded Kindath. Changing political tensions in the region bring these three together, and they become friends and perhaps more; the core conflict of the novel thus becomes the conflict between personal attachment and patriotic duty. Can the cross-cultural friendship of three people at the right place and the right time overcome centuries of political enmity?

This being Guy Gavriel Kay, it’s no spoiler to say that the answer is “no” – or, at least, “it’s complicated”. Ammar, Rodrigo and Jehane are no Legolas and Gimli, able to heal the rifts between their respective cultures at a stroke through the sheer power of brotherly love. Although they can, and do, achieve wonders together (most notably, Ammar and Jehane’s cooperation allows Jehane’s blind father to perform a miraculous surgery on Rodrigo’s terribly injured son), there are immense historical forces at play that they are ultimately powerless to resist. Kay’s use of actual history here gives the story added tragic inevitability: if we know our medieval history (which admittedly I didn’t at the time), we know that the Jaddites are destined to invade the Asharite country, destroying its rich culture and putting our protagonists in an impossible position politically.

This failure of the personal in the overwhelming face of the political speaks to a rebuttal across Kay’s work of the conventions of heroic fantasy. I referred to The Lord of the Rings in my last paragraph; Kay worked on editing Tolkien’s The Silmarillion as a graduate student, and in much of his work is clearly writing against the Tolkienian tradition that has seized modern fantasy. Many of his novels are set in medieval Europe, but they are always culturally specific and alert to patterns of thought and sensibility that were current in the era, as opposed to the generic, bourgeois-influenced settings of much sword-and-sorcery. And very few of his main characters, even when they occupy relatively comfortable or powerful positions, are able meaningfully to change the tide of history, a choice that stands as a corrective to heroic fantasy’s bourgeois prioritisation of individual achievement. It’s notable that Kay’s novels feature hardly any actual magic – since magic is the ultimate expression of personal power, a kind of literalised metaphor for imposing one’s will on the world instead of the other way round.

These are novels, in other words, that help us come to terms with our own powerlessness, and to live and choose well in spite of it; and for my money they better equip readers for fighting the good fight, which in reality is hard and grinding and full of setbacks, than fantasies about changing the world at the flick of a wand or the thrust of a sword. Good heroic fantasy is often doing other important work (see Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion, for example, a novel that deeply considers ideas about religion and faith in an individualistic framework), and I don’t mean to take away from that. At the same time, though, I’d love to see more novels like The Lions of Al-Rassan being talked about and recognised in SFF fandom: novels about people who are, like every one of us, are swept along by the tide of history, hoping only to keep our heads above water.

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