Reread, again: The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy G Kay

I don’t read much fantasy. I really don’t. The reason is simple – I have a hard time suspending my disbelief when it comes to the supernatural or fantastic. Such stories are, to me, deux ex machina-devices stacked on top of each other, nothing more. Therefore it might be surprising that the only two books that I’ve read to pieces are… fantasy genre books – the first were Lord of the Rings (yes, I’ll call them one book, even it it’s six books in three volumes), which I read again and again until covers and bindings fell apart. That was when I was 12. The second one is The Lions of Al-Rassan.

Admittedly, the binding isn’t very good – it’s a trade paperback. None the less it’s starting to fall apart. So, why does it get treated to repeated reading?

First, the Moorish era and the way it has influenced European culture and “science”, and how it fed the Christian movement, through reasons of fear, backfed for political reasons, interests me and I think Kay has succeeded in using the historical events in a good way; using it to discuss loyalty, friendship, tolerance, and politics – how spin is used to whip up hatred or to keep the public focus away from important matters. Clearly a mirror of our own times – of all times – and extra relevant in these times of War on Terror, of war and fear against anything that isn’t an exact copy of oneself.

Second, for some reason I just love the pretentiousness of the text. The way the words are weaved aspires to poetry, and sometimes it gets a bit construed, or close to being an academic exercise in form and style, but I don’t care because the images are elaborate as the carvings and mosaics of a Moorish castle and evoking real life memories I have of harsh dry cliffs, scorching sun and lush orange grooves; winding labyrinthine alleys, surprising courtyards; the scent of olive groves, thyme and rosemary; star-roofed Arab baths, and the horse shoe arches of Cordoba…

Most people gets irritated on the low quality poetry. I don’t, and for two main reasons – a) I skip it. Read most of it the first time around, and never again – just like I do in any book featuring verse (yes, I skip it in LoTR as well), and b) because some of it is very close to originals penned by Moorish poets, over 1500 years ago. And having read some of those originals I can only say that either they are only readable in their original language, or styles have changed over the millennia. Or maybe both? ;-) In any case I don’t think they’re truly intended to be astonishing poetry but to add texture and ambience. Which is well enough.

Most people also gets irritated by the improbability of the friendship between the main characters, not to mention the love story. I’m not. Perhaps I’m biased by my agreement over the general message – people are people, whatever their heritage or belief – or perhaps I’m just plain blind. I don’t know. But through the story we see two of the main protagonists turn from many-layered individuals into mere placeholders, marionettes, tools for their respective sides, none of which they totally agree with. Sorrow and grief follows, as expected. And at the very last we are shown hope – that coexistence is possible… and that war is not a means to achieve that.

So perhaps the reason I like the book so much is that while it’s well written, well told, and evocative of personal physical memories of place most of all it verifies and validates my personal philosophy; something that might be comfy and cosy, but not especially worthy. But as long as I don’t overdose on it I think a shot of hope every now and then is needed, to sustain life.

I will read this book again. I know it – and admit it – without shame.

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