1996, Books, Fiction

The Lions of Al-Rassan (1996) by Guy Gavriel Kay

I read this book because Kay is my girlfriend’s favourite fantasy writer (and she really doesn’t like fantasy). I had really never heard of him before and didn’t fully realize he was Canadian. (Also, I knew nothing of his association with Tolkien.) I liked this book more than I thought I might, and more than some fantasy I read, but I still had some issues. This means SPOILERS.

Though I think you could criticize him for being obvious, I quite like how it is mostly set in a world resembling our own and it’s extremely easy to figure out that the Asharties are Muslims, the Jaddites are Christians and the Kindath are Jews. Could he have done more to disguise this? Sure, but I actually think this is to the novel’s credit, as it makes it easy to understand the politics of the place, and Kay doesn’t have to spend as much time on the endless backstory and scene-setting that kills so much fantasy.

I like the level of moral ambiguity, something which is missing from most fantasy. I’ve read some Martin and so I am aware it can exist in fantasy, but most fantasy is Good vs. Evil and occasionally people who have Become Good or Become Evil. The sides are established. Here, we’re not sure, and it’s extremely refreshing. It’s probably the best part of the book.

I like how he is willing to kill off the odd semi-major character though I think he could go further. (More on that in a second.) Building to a climax where one of the major characters dies is good stuff, and feels very unusual for fantasy.

And I liked how he definitely steered away from happy endings. Wish-fulfillment is the bane of fantasy.
But there are still some fantasy (and other) clichés. For example: even though some of the book is from a woman’s point of view, it still feels to me like there are a few silly things she does or thinks that I don’t think a woman author would have written.

But I think I had more of an issue with the overall length – this is a long novel if you’re not super into the genre. It’s still better than a lot of them, but it’s really long. And like any novel this long, the character motivations get kind of confused, particularly around the three most important characters, who each do at least one thing that doesn’t really make any sense. Which brings me to…

One of my biggest nitpicks is one I’m not sure is entirely fair given Chekov’s Blind Doctor. I really don’t like when characters are brought back from the dead. (A fantasy cliché if there was one.) I understand that this moment is set up by the existence of Jehane’s father but I still didn’t like it. Given how unnecessary it was to the overall plot, in my mind, and how it arguably confuses the motivations of Belmonte and makes what he does later far more suspect, I think the whole episode is a mistake both in terms of what happens and what it means for Belmonte and the plot.

Still, it’s much better than I was expecting. And it really makes me want to read about medieval Spain. Does anyone know a good history?


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