Steal and steal well – first lesson from The Lions of Al-Rassan

Posted: January 6, 2014 in lessons learned, reading
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I finished reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan yesterday. It was a beautifully written and fascinating book, and I’ll probably be writing about it most of this week, because like all the best books it’s taught me lots of lessons.

Spoiler alert - it's not about real lions

Spoiler alert – it’s not about real lions

Setting somewhere different

First up, the most obvious thing to talk about – the setting.

The Lions of Al-Rassan is a fantasy novel with almost no fantasy. It’s set in a secondary world version of Medieval Spain, a period known in real world history as the Reconquista. There’s one single magical fantasy element in the whole book, and other than that it’s essentially a piece of historical fiction with the details tweaked.

It’s an interestingly different setting, one that emphasises the world-building aspects of fantasy rather than the magical ones. It’s a bit like chopping the most wacky ten percent off of George R R Martin’s Westeros and leaving behind the world of people and politics. It lets Kay explore the possibilities and wonders of a historical period without being tied down to specific events and without the risk of someone turning round and calling him out for historical inaccuracy.

It’s also interesting to see an author use that setting as a basis for any sort of fantasy. Secondary world fantasy settings, while usually taking a lot of their queues from medieval Europe, haven’t often played with the particular features of the Iberian peninsula. While this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered Arabian-influenced fantasy it is the first time I’ve seen someone use the particular political and culture encounters, the clashes and compromises, and the elegant half-way-house culture that was Spain during the great struggle for dominance between Europe and Islam. It makes for a very different feel.

Here comes the history…

OK, let me step back a moment and put my history graduate hat on.

For those who don’t know it, Spain was torn between Islamic and European influences for most of the middle ages. These two great cultures – Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East – were defining themselves in contrast and conflict with each other, but also by absorbing influences from each other. From the first Islamic invasion in 711 to the fall of Granada in 1492 they grappled to control the Spanish peninsula, as a succession of different states rose and fell. The resulting culture took the best of both worlds to create something bold and vibrant. The resulting politics was bloody and horrifying, with battles and massacres aplenty.

Everybody in the peninsula defined themselves by their religion, even if other factors also came into play, and the differences between religious, cultural and political allegiances were not clear cut. But while this was mostly a land of Christians and Muslims competing with each other it was also a land in which a small Jewish minority sought to survive and to carve out their own niche amidst the chaos.

Using what’s distinctive

What’s so wonderful about Guy Gavriel Kay’s use of this is that he hasn’t just taken the outward trappings of the period – the caliphs and kings, the poets and princes. He’s taken the deep rooted institutions and issues and riffed on them to build his world. There are religions mirroring the places of Christianity, Islam and Judaism in medieval Spain. The politics between the city states reflects the real challenges and tensions of a period in which allegiances were slippery and borders ever-shifting. The massacre of one religious group by another is all the more powerful for reflecting what really happened to many Jews as tensions rose. And the plot of the book reflects the polarising influences that arose in the most bloody periods.

This means that you get much more than just another fantasy adventure. You get a world that’s both different and familiar, that’s utterly convincing in its detail. And for me, as a fantasy fan and a history fan, that’s some damn good reading.

Not done yet

I’ll be back to write more about this tomorrow I’m sure. In the meantime thank you to my friends who persuaded me to read this, especially Glenatron who’s evangelised for GGK any time I’ve created an opportunity.

Have you read The Lions of Al-Rassan? If you have let me know what you thought. If not then go read it!




  1. glenatron says:

    I love it, as you know – one of the things that people sometimes miss about writing and about the telling of stories is simply the fact that it can be beautiful. Kay has a real handle on that.

    The thing that blows my mind about reading that book, though, is that although it is the ideal introduction to his settings and stories, I don’t think it is his best work. I haven’t read them all, though. I deliberately ration myself on authors I completely love for fear of the day that there is nothing of their writing left to explore.

    • Jon Taylor says:

      Beautiful is right!

      I am roughly halfway through ‘Lions’ at the moment and loving it! Its like a beautiful tapestry; The narrative deftly woven together with different viewpoints and carefully selected moments; Pace and action with gorgeous and poetic prose; Characters that just force you to admire or love or sympathize with them; Compelling relationships. The fact that the audiobook narrator (Euan Morton) is very talented only helps.

      It took a little while for me to get a sense of where all the alluring prose was taking me, but I was happy floating along with it. The true story arc and theme has taken shape slowly and its seems like the real antagonist is fanaticism and bigotry as it looms to snuff out the fragile ‘convivencia’ of early medieval Spain. Its that fascinating period when the flux of the early medieval period was hardening up and fault-lines of modern Europe were taking shape.

      I honestly don’t that I will be able to resist gorging on all of his books in quick succession.
      I was considering moving on to China with ‘Under Heaven’ and ‘River of Stars’. Does anyone have any recommendation about which one to read next?

      • Like both of you I found that the beauty of the prose was part of why I kept reading, and yet it’s something I probably won’t write a post about as I’m struggling to pin down what makes it so great. And like Jon, it took me a while to work out where it was all going, but I was OK with that because it was so well written. When the arcs and themes emerged they did it so naturally, so gracefully, it was like watching snowflakes gently fall or ballerinas in action – gently, seamlessly poetic.

        Several people have recommended Sailing to Sarantium to me as the one to read next, but the Chinese stuff looks really interesting.

        It’s a curious thing, while the emergence of fanaticism and bigotry are clearly key features of the book, I hadn’t considered them as antagonists until now. But it does make sense as a way of reading it, and it’s interesting to consider that an antagonist can be so abstract.

        • glenatron says:

          I think of all his books the two Sarantine stories ( which are two volumes of a… duology? ) actually left me in tears. Aside from that I think Ysabel is the only weak spot – ironically the one that won the World Fantasy Award – and that is only weak by comparison. Also the Fionavar trilogy are classic high-fantasy and clearly the work of a writer growing into his powers, although they are very well executed. I think that prior to those he had been helping Christopher Tolkien compile the Silmarillion and there is a clear connection there.

          In general I can pretty much settle down with any GGK and know that I am in for a really excellent read.

          • Now I’m torn. Do I read the highly recommended books now, or do I read the slightly weaker ones first knowing that things are going to keep getting more awesome?

            Mr Taylor, we should coordinate our reading choices on this so that we can discuss the books as we go along. And maybe find / set up a Google+ or similar space for sharing said enthusiasm.

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