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The Lions of al-Rassan Paperback – June 28, 2005
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The ruling Asharites of Al-Rassan have come from the desert sands, but over centuries, seduced by the sensuous pleasures of their new land, their stern piety has eroded. The Asharite empire has splintered into decadent city-states led by warring petty kings. King Almalik of Cartada is on the ascendancy, aided always by his friend and advisor, the notorious Ammar ibn Khairan -- poet, diplomat, soldier -- until a summer afternoon of savage brutality changes their relationship forever.
Meanwhile, in the north, the conquered Jaddites' most celebrated -- and feared -- military leader, Rodrigo Belmonte, driven into exile, leads his mercenary company south.
In the dangerous lands of Al-Rassan, these two men from different worlds meet and serve -- for a time -- the same master. Sharing their interwoven fate -- and increasingly torn by her feelings -- is Jehane, the accomplished court physician, whose own skills play an increasing role as Al-Rassan is swept to the brink of holy war, and beyond.
Hauntingly evocative of medieval Spain, The Lions of Al-Rassan is both a brilliant adventure and a deeply compelling story of love, divided loyalties, and what happens to men and women when hardening beliefs begin to remake -- or destroy -- a world.
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Another aspect of Lions is the almost impossible situations some of the characters find themselves in; especially when it comes to love and loyalty...so many lines are crossed and in such a way that the differences between Jaddite-Asharite-Kindath pale in significance to the individuals involved. The Kindath physician Jehane, the poet/warrior Ammar, the Jaddite warrior Rodrigo and many others, provide the reader with characters so fully developed as to make the story seem historical rather than a fantasy account.
So, my peeps and fellow travelers, prepare for an emotion filled, heart tugging tale from a master at his craft. 5 stars...or maybe two moons...or maybe just the Sun..read the book, you'll get what I mean. :-)
Things I Liked:
Kay's style, as mentioned, is superb. There's a thread of charisma running throughout his characterization that makes all of the characters in this book have a sense of depth to them, not to mention the fact they're just all really talented and interesting people. Even the unimportant characters feel fleshed out. This finesse of description and emotion carries over to the locales, which all feel as if they have history and heart to them (probably owing to the historical basis of Moorish Spain that this novel owes as a basis).
Jehane is particularly noteworthy as the kind of female character I'd like to see more of. She is professional, capable, and strong-willed and I enjoyed the perspective she brought as a woman struggling with her role in a world that didn't respect her religion or her gender.
Lastly, I very much enjoyed the theme of individuals from various backgrounds coming together, despite their religious differences and a time of war that would usually tear them apart. Loyalty, justice, and patriotism all play a part in their trials and tribulations.
Things I Didn't Like:
The novel started out very strong but I feel about a third of the way through, it took an anticlimactic turn as far as major character motivations went and the rest of the novel was spent meandering through their various adventures. This made the middle somewhat of a slog, despite the beautiful writing, which was probably what kept me going through the slower parts.
As much as I love Jehane, it felt somewhat contrived that either she was in love with the other two amazingly awesome charismatic men or they were in love with her. Romance is fine, but it's acceptable every now and again to have a man and a woman be good friends. It is possible. The love triangle (and occasional square) seemed very played up for melodrama.
Finally, as much as I love the lyrical nature of Kay's style, I felt physical description to be sadly lacking by comparison when it came to the characters, beyond a mention of hair and eye color. I feel like I can still envision them, but would've liked more. This is a personal preference, however, as the personality descriptions were so strong I can build my own vision of them and that is perhaps what Kay was after writing in this way.
Who Would I Recommend This Book To?
Fans of more down to earth mature fantasy will enjoy this story, as it has more in common with historical novels than it does with fantasy epics full of magic. The magic here exists in the power of willful individuals to change the course of history and in Kay's masterful ability to create an immersive world full of patriots, heroes, and zealots in all shades of grey.
I have quibbles. Occasionally, the author withheld information from the reader that I felt should have been disclosed (for instance, when the information was known and important to the point-of-view character). The sections summarizing the sweep of events are less compelling than those anchored in a character's perspective. The prose is beautiful, sometimes haunting, and there is a heightened nature to the characters, who approach ideals -- both these things are part of what draws me so to Guy Gavriel Kay's work, and yet sometimes they set me at a slight remove from the story.
They are only quibbles. I love this book, its arc, its grace, its sensibilities, the sadness inherent in it. The two men at the center who are each other's match. How they reach toward each other against the tide of the world.