UPDATE: Welcome, readers and followers of BrightWeavings! I'm in the process of re-reading all of GGK's books leading up to the Under Heaven release. You can find earlier posts of mine on the subject of GGK here. Feel free to stick around!
When the Lion at his pleasure comes
To the watering place to drink, ah see!
See the lesser beasts of Al-Rassan
scatter, like blown leaves in autumn,
Like air-borne seedlings in the spring,
Like grey clouds that part to let the first star
Of the god shine down upon the earth.
I suppose many readers have the problem of the Favorite Author: after reading one of the Favorite Author's books, it's often hard to work up any enthusiasm for some book by some other author, putting those subsequent authors at a disadvantage. It's even worse if one follows up a book by one's Favorite Author with something by an author one has never read before; after all, what are the chances that some new fry is going to measure up to the Favorite Author?
That's the problem I tend to have with Guy Gavriel Kay: reading him leaves me in the mood to read little else but more Guy Gavriel Kay. It's been this way for years; I suppose I've bounced off more books I've read immediately post-Kay than anyone else. What's the solution? Reading another favorite author, I suppose, but that can only put off the problem. Best to just keep trying books until something sticks.
And there's the thorny sub-problem of the Favorite Author conundrum: the Favorite Book by the Favorite Author. Ah, now we're treading on dangerous ground, because when you re-read your favorite book, that afterglow tends to stick around for quite a while, outshining the light of nearly everything else. So it is with me and The Lions of Al-Rassan. My own experience is that most fans of GGK will cite Tigana as their favorite, but not me. It'll always be Lions.
The Lions of Al-Rassan is set in a land that has two names: Al-Rassan, as it is called by the Asharite lords who have ruled it for centuries, and Esperana, as it is called by the minor Kings in the north who dream of driving out the Asharites and uniting all of the peninsula under a single banner. The situation is basically a fantasy analog of the Iberian peninsula as Moorish rule was coming to an end, and indeed, GGK gives us our own Ferdinand and Isabella, in the persons of King Ramiro and Queen Ines of the realm of Valledo. But that's getting ahead a bit.
I've noticed over my years of reading fantasy that a common theme in the best of the genre is the passing of ages and of kingdoms and of the onward march of history; even as one person's great ambitions are being fulfilled, another is seeing a beloved kingdom pass into memory. That is the main theme of Lions, with the Asharites slowly but inevitably losing their grip on Al-Rassan, and the Jaddites slowly but inevitably bringing it under theirs. The Asharites are the "Muslims" of this world, the worshippers of the Stars of Ashar; the Jaddites are the "Christians", worshiping the sun-god Jad. Caught in between them are the moon-worshipping Kindath, who are viewed with suspicion and derision everywhere they go. Thus the three great monotheistic faiths of our world are reflected in GGK's fantasy world.
The book has a huge cast of characters, all of them memorable. Our attentions focus most on three: Jehane bet Ishak, a Kindath physician; Rodrigo Belmonte, a Captain of Jaddite cavalry from one of the three kingdoms of Esperana; and Ammar ibn Khairan, an Asharite poet, assassin, and mercenary warrior. I suppose that, in a sort of way, these three people form a love triangle of sorts, but calling it that reduces the very real and very complex emotional connections between three of the most memorable characters in any book I've ever read to the level of soap opera. GGK manages to create a very real, and ultimately heartbreaking, emotional fabric amongst these characters whose struggles alongside, and against, each other mirror the tensions of the struggles amongst three faiths dominant in a violent world.
Plot isn't really a force in GGK's best works; what he instead excels at is in depicting characters who are, like all of us, struggling between what we want to do and what we are allowed to do, whether by the conventions of our societies or the forces of history. Jehane, the Kindath physician, becomes beloved of Rodrigo Belmonte and his company of men, so much so that Rodrigo invites her to take up service with them. Jehane is forced to point out the troubling hatred of the Kindath evident in Esperanan society and history. All this leads to a number of deeply heartbreaking moments toward the end of the book, when Rodrigo and Ammar must finally confront the fact that they can only truly ever be adversaries. GGK's master stroke with this book, as pertains to these two characters, is that he makes us wish for a world in which these two men can be friends, before confronting us with a world where not only can they not be, it becomes clear that they cannot even exist together.
The way Ammar ibn Khairan is allowed to show real anger on occasion, and to admit his own faults, keeps him from seeming almost too perfect of a character at times. I remember when I first read the book, I didn't really have a good handle at all on Ammar until well over halfway through, because he is shown to be so many different things in the course of the novel. He's one of the most celebrated poets in Al-Rassan; he's a warrior of stunning skill; he's an assassin, wanted dead and celebrated for heroism in the same culture at the same time; he's a lover and a killer. Ammar's nature is one reason the book seems to improve so markedly upon a re-read, when his nature becomes more and more clear. On this re-read, I was far more attuned to the interplay and contrast between Ammar and Rodrigo Belmonte, who is as strong and memorable a character as Ammar himself.
GGK's gift for writing strong and three-dimensional female characters continues to shine here, as well. He gives women who strive in their own ways to better the world in which they live, even while operating within its constraints against them. Jehane is the main female character here, but there are others: wives, queens, concubines, mothers and daughters. Some are all of those.
Finally, the book's verse ranks among the most captivating in all of GGK's books. Poetry often plays a role in his novels, but in Lions, poetry is especially important, almost moreso than it had been in A Song for Arbonne, the book in which troubadors themselves are main characters. Here the poetry reflects the Andalusian verse of Moorish Iberia, and while there's not a great deal of verse in the book, what there is is fascinatingly evocative. The verse is a big way that GGK is able to explore the central theme of the book, as noted above: the passing into memory of beloved things, and the difficulty in finding one's way in a world that one no longer recognizes.
The Lions of Al-Rassan is a deeply brilliant book. And now, onto The Sarantine Mosaic. (Actually, as of this writing, I'm more than halfway through Sarantine Mosaic, which means I'm well on schedule to complete my GGK re-read before Under Heaven comes out.)