Guy Gavriel Kay
The Lions of Al-Rassan
HarperPrism 1995 The days of peace are long gone in Al-Rassan. The last khalif is dead, different cities with their own petty kings struggling for hegemony. In the north, the Esperañan kingdoms are becoming stronger and more daring for every day. But they are divided, too, into three kingdoms, with kings who would as happily smash their Esperañan rivals as re-conquer Al-Rassan from the heretic, star-worshipping Asharites. And south of Al-Rassan, in the Majriti Desert, bedouin warriors eager to teach the decadent citizens of the rich cities of Al-Rassan true Asharite values wait for a signal, ready and willing to teach them by the sword.
That's the background for this story about the notorious Ammar ibn Khairan, a poet, diplomat and soldier but most famous as the man who assassinated the last khalif, and Rodrigo Belmonte, the most celebrated military leader of all Esperaña. Two men, two heroes of the age, and in many ways twin souls, sharing not only the expertise of war and diplomacy, but also the love of Jehane, a young and beautiful Kindath physician who - just like Ammar and Rodrigo - is an exile the city of Ragosa. The story itself, it's about politics and religion, love and war. An epic and an elegy. Or something.
Mr. Kay is quite good at setting up an interesting scenario. This time, the setting is a variation on the Iberian peninsula before the reconquest that after a while led to the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal. I don't know much about the history of the time, but the sun-worshipping Jaddite religion has replaced Christianity, the Asharite religion Islam and the Kindath moon-worship the Jewish religion. Even though the main beliefs of the religions have been changed, their structural relationships remain, like the Muslim rulers' heavy taxation of Christians and Jews and the total lack of tolerance of the Jews among the Christians.
I guess the characters are created by Mr. Kay. His heroes have a special feeling about them. While many authors praise men who are living their lives after the code of Protestant ethics, honest men fighting against corruption of state, body and mind, Kay like them sophisticated, worldly men - I guess you might even call them decadent "ladies' men". Unlike many fellow fantasy writers, Mr. Kay also likes to describe what men and women do together. Now, I know I'm quite a prude, but why these long descriptions of carnal acts? And why does they have to be so kinky? No rapes, but even mutually chosen sexual interaction with sado-masochistic tendencies is more than I care to read in the metro on my way to work. But I guess some people like it, or he wouldn't have included these parts.
"The Lions of Al-Rassan" is a good book, well-written and with a good plot and interesting characters. The author certainly knows how to create feelings - they dance like puppets. Few are able to bring forth such sentimentality as Mr. Kay, and even fewer to get away with it. Still, there is something missing to make this book a real master-piece: maybe all the drama, and the sometimes quite pretentious language, makes it feel less real, too constructed. Or maybe it's the complete lack of magic in a world that without magic without to much trouble could be exchanged for the real world. Or maybe it's just that I'm a prude.
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© Henriksson & Henriksson 1998.