Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Lions of Al-Rassan - Guy Gavriel Kay

"It was just past midday, not long before the third summons to prayer, that Ammar ibn Khairan passed through the Gate of the Bells and entered the palace of Al-Fontina in Silvenes to kill the last of the khalifs of Al-Rassan."

Twenty years later the land of Al-Rassan has changed. City-state kingdoms have sprung up since the fall of the Khalifate. Life continues, along with murders, poisonings and pillaging. In the city of Fezana, Jehane, a Kindath doctor, is preparing to see patients; Ammar ibn Khairan is in town to oversee his pupil, Prince Almalik receive dignitaries; Rodrigo Belmonte, a captain in Valledo's army is riding to Fezana to collect the tribute paid each year to his king. All three are soon to be drawn into a plot involving two kingdoms, political intrigue and religious fanaticism.

Kay has crafted an amazing story here with a rich plot that covers a lot of ground, both literally and physically. His world draws obvious parallels with medeival Spain as evidenced by the map included in the book. Religion also plays a strong hand, with the three main religions composed of Asharites, who worship the stars of Ashar, Jaddites who worship the sun-god Jad and Kindaths who worship the sister of the god, represented by the two moons. The allusions to Islam, Christianity and Judaism show Kay's obvious inspiration and allow the reader to gain an understanding of the conflicts and comforts of the three fairly easily.

The characters are richly described. As a doctor Jehane has sworn an oath to protect and heal others but at times this tenement is tested, most sorely after a village is raided by Asharites with many of the occupants put to the sword. As well, the reader gets to experience the conflicting emotions among the characters as they get to know one another despite religion and borders and duty to one's country. Kay really makes you care about them and their plight but there were times when I found myself rolling my eyes. When first introducted Rodrigo and Ammar seemed almost indistinguishable from one another. They are both smart and capable warriors and I felt Kay didn't do enough to develop them into two completely separate people. Ammar may be a poet and recite lines throughout the book but his dialogue, his attitude, his body language and tactician's mind all seemed very much in line with Rodrigo. And let's not forget about Jehane. She was consistently referred to as beautiful, almost to the point of distraction. Instead of using ambiguous terms, Kay could have described her hands for example. As a doctor her hands are extremely important, her tools for fighting infection and disease.

The story is action-packed but Kay plays the trickster when it comes to plot-points. There were several times throughout the novel where he misleads the reader, pulls at your heartstrings. It was cheeky the first time but after the third I was done with his maddening omission of pronouns and names. As well, while the story moved along at a quick pace, there were sections that were merely summarized which I believe would have benefitted from an action scene. This is most evident at the end of the book where the climax of the plot is summarized instead of described in detail. By glossing over this Kay started to fall into "Lorna Doone" territory, something a book should never attempt to do.

Overall though, an extremely enjoyable read and a good introduction into Kay's writing. I will definitely be keeping this book in my library. I should also mention that Kay is one of ours, a home grown product of Canada!

Rating: 4/5

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