Penguin, 1995, 582 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-14-024313-5
I’ll be prompt to confess that I don’t read a lot of fantasy. Science-Fiction, thrillers and military fiction are my chosen genres, but fantasy… well, I’ll leave that to other people. We can get along.
But that doesn’t mean that I read no fantasy. It just depends on the circumstances. For instance, I found myself, during Fall 2000, rummaging through a table of books at a goodwill sale, ending up with 11 choices. The salesperson counted them and asked if I minded picking another book to make it an even dozen to simplify the bill. Always glad to oblige, I looked over to the nearest section and saw, in the middle of a tapestry of Harlequin novels, Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan. I had known for some time that I would read Kay sooner of later (after all, he’s a fellow Ontarian), so luck decided that I’d end up reading Kay sooner rather than later.
And a fortuitous choice it was. The Lions of Al-Rassan sucked me in its narrative like very few fantasy books have managed to do. From the opening pages, where a young doctor is forced in a campaign against the king, Kay is a professional who knows how to hook his readers. In short time, we’re effortlessly introduced to a historical setting with troubling similarities with medieval Spain, but also quite unlike it. Three major culture clash on a single peninsula, with assorted third-parties jumping into the fray as needed.
Even though The Lions of Al-Rassan is usually labelled fantasy, it’s not your usual Tolkienesque heroic fantasy ripoff. There is one single element of “impossibility” in the novel (a remote viewing sense which could have been written out, slight as it is); the rest is strictly realistic. Kay has written sort of an extreme alternate history of medieval Spain and the result is astonishing by its depth, accessibility and cleverness. There is a lot of material here, especially for a one-shot novel that could have been (unfortunately) turned into a full trilogy. Kings are killed, empires fall, wars are waged in an unusually zippy 582 pages. The depth, complexity and realism of Al-Rassan’s complex universe is nearly awe-inspiring.
But to spend much time on the empires and the cerebral qualities of The Lions of Al Rassan would be ignoring the novel’s biggest strength, its unusually well-developed and sympathetic protagonists. A trio of linked characters—a doctor, a warrior and a politician/poet—form the access point through which the land of Al-Rassan is revealed to the reader. These Lions are at the center of the upheavals described in the novel, and while the narrative may often feature royal palace intrigues, it is most compelling when focusing on the three protagonists. “How-to” writing books repeat that good characters are the key to sweeping fiction: you will not be able to find a better illustration of this maxim than with The Lions of Al-Rassan.
Kay is gifted in that he can write a prose that is polished, beautiful and completely understandable at first glance. Breathtaking descriptions of Al-Rassan co-exist with clever dialogue and pulse-pounding action scenes that would belong in action movies. It’s hard not to like an author who delivers the goods like that.
If there are things to dislike, they come at the end, where Kay seems to delight in obscuring some information in order to maintain suspense for a few more pages. Unfortunately, the effect is closer to exasperation than suspense, as we’ll just rush through the rest of the book to find out who won and who didn’t.
But never mind that: I won’t go as far as saying that The Lions of Al-Rassan single-bookedly restored my faith in Fantasy, but it’s certainly an exceptional, memorable work by a professional of the genre. As my testimony might suggest, even non-genre readers might enjoy this book. At least give it a try.