Reread while sick: The Lions of Al-Rassan

This comes labelled as fantasy but the only fantastic elements are the invented, two moon, world and a boy having visions. Even then the place names, religions and geography closely echoes Moorish Spain at the time of the Reconquista.

The story follows a group of people through the ending of Al-Rassan (al-Andalus). A infamous asharite (muslim) courtier, an equally infamous (or famous, depending on your world view) jaddite (christian) captain and a kindath (jewish) doctor. The supporting cast features a young jaddite soldier, the family of the jaddite captain, an asharite merchant, a jaddite king and a selection of asharite ones, a kindath chancellor and zealous desert warriors.

The first time I read this book the likenesses with real history and real geography irked me slightly but as the story began to spin through the pages my (slight) knowledge of the era, and me having visited some of the remnants of it, only worked to paint that important inner vision of the place, with smells and textures and all.

Kay is good at portraying people as people, worthy of themselves and with motives, ridden by their anguishes, their pride and their desires – very few of the characters are truly evil or truly good – almost everyone is a bit of each.
He is good at political intrigue, even the shrewder bits of it, and I appreciate that a lot as I think it adds considerable depth.

Kay uses ambiguity and multiple viewpoints as stylistic tools, and to me that only makes the story stronger. I can see, however, how it can equally irritate as it slows the actual happenings instead of tightening the psychological pressure, if you’re a certain kind of reader.

After the first few reads I also started to discern the fact that while the female kindath doctor seemed to be a main character in reality she’s only a plot device used to give dimension to the real main cast, the real topic – the asharite courtier and the jaddite captain who when meeting in exile starts a friendship, with her in the middle. But seen that way isn’t EVERYONE in ANY story a plot device?

So I can live with that. Because what he seems to say is that religions as religion, all zealots are narrow minded and when big politics takes over the individual can only do so much to steer clear of the shoals.
That the enemy is ordinary people, just like you and me, only with other goals and circumstances.
This reflects my own opinion.

I chose to read this book because with a high fever I needed a story I knew and with some happy moments in it. This should not be taken as a sign that this is an uncontroversial text; it is a cruel romance, full of severed body parts, spilled intestines and explicit sex. And a great deal of political intrigue and religious critique.
But those things only work to make the characters and the world more realistic, with less need for suspended disbelief.

Nevermind the not very good poetry. After this fifth read I still think it’s a good book.

(Anyone reading the book should NOT skip the epilogue.)


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