One of the things that Guy Gavriel Kay does best in The Lions of Al-Rassan is making big things personal. I must have written about this before, but it’s important enough as a lesson for writers and readers that it’s worth looking at what Kay does.
The Lions of Al-Rassan is, in some ways, the story of huge political events. It depicts the political and religious struggles for control of a region currently broken up into separate kingdoms, and the end of a way of life.
It also depicts the dangers of fanaticism and bigotry, how these shape history and endanger lives.
Big themes, huh?
Despite all this, the story is structured around the personal relationships of a small group of characters. It’s the story of Jehane bet Ishak’s journey out into the world and the recovery of her relationship with her father. It’s Rodrigo Belmonte’s struggle to protect his family, caught up in a deadly web of politics. It’s Ammar ibn Khairan’s quest to do right by his people. It’s the emerging relationship between the three of theme, often subtly depicted and always intriguing.
If the novel’s so concerned with big themes then why do these people matter?
Because it’s the personal that draws us in. The politics and the warfare can be exciting, but they’re also distant from what’s familiar to us, and sometimes impersonal. The relationships between the characters give us something that’s more familiar, if still fascinating. Love, loyalty, ambition. And by connecting those characters into the themes and events of the novel Kay gives us reason to care about the big events, to feel them deeply and personally.
Tying them together
While it’s important to have the small and personal alongside the grand events, it’s also important to connect them together. Kay does this by depicting a group of characters whose allegiances are pulled in different directions, whose loyalties, religions and ethnicities tear them apart against their will, like the land they live in. They are placed at the centre of events but not through the most obvious positions. They are not the kings and caliphs, and for most of the novel not the generals leading the armies. They affect and are affected by the struggles, but their places in those struggles aren’t always obvious. Their need to negotiate that, to work out what they want and why, highlights the struggles and themes of the book.
So that was good
As I’ve made clear before, I think Kay writes beautifully, and the way this book works shows that he can also plot like a badass. This sort of nuance doesn’t just fall into place, it takes skill and planning.
Tomorrow, more Al-Rassan. For now, go forth and read. Think about how characters tie in to bigger themes and events in books. Maybe tell me about other great examples below.
Picture by Larry Wentzel via Flickr creative commons.