Friday, October 29, 2010

Joint Musings: The Lions of Al-Rassan

The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay, is one of my favorite books of all time.  I read it several years ago, I think in high school.  And then Heather over at Raging Bibliomania said she wanted to read it, and I jumped at the chance to read the book again.  It did not disappoint, and I'm excited for the opportunity to share the book with you all!

The Lions of Al-Rassan takes place in an alternate (BARELY alternate, I might add) version of Spain in the Middle Ages, when the country was ruled by the Moors.  Kay gives us three main characters, all from different religions.  There is Jehane, the Kindath physician (who also already holds a place on my Women Who Don't Annoy Me list), Ammar the Asharite warrior-poet, based loosely on the historical figure El Cid, and Rodrigo, the Jaddite counselor whose king dismisses him.  All three of these characters meet at King Badir's court as political intrigue, racial tension and military maneuvering begin to overwhelm the region.  Life will never be the same for anyone, but for Jehane, Ammar and Rodrigo, their time at Badir's court will mark them forever.

What follows is a Q&A Heather and I had about the book.  Tomorrow, Heather will post a more a casual conversation we had about more general themes.  Check it out!

This is a a book that had several different and well developed elements to it, including very vivid and three dimensional characters, exceptional world building and political aspects, and an action packed plot. Do you feel like there was one aspect or element that stood out in the book more than the others, or was it just a perfect amalgam of all of its parts?

Aarti: Wow, great question!  I think this is probably based on personal preference.  I am a huge fan of world-building in fantasy novels; I love a complex political situation (check), more history than is presented in the text (check) and well-developed cultures (check again!).  To me, that really shows the prowess of a fantasy author.  But reading generally, for me, is more about the characters and the language.  I felt so attached to so many of the characters in this book- not just the main characters, but also so many of the secondary ones.  There was so much quiet courage and personal sacrifice.  I loved how Kay made it more about the personal, smaller stories and how those had a massive effect upon the course of history.

Heather: I think all of the elements in this book were really exceptional as well, but I think the world building was what stood out to me the most. What Kay manages to do with all the components of his world in this book was not only believable, but also sort of awe inspiring. Nothing was left to chance or mismanaged, from the various political ideologies and religions,  to the the cultural embellishments, Even the physical attributes of the world itself were well thought out and developed. Though I have not read a lot of books in the fantasy genre, his world seemed complex and all encompassing. Each component of his universe fit together so smoothly, and it gave me a thrill to be able to imagine it all and wonder over it. I have been thinking about this since I read the book, and wondering if other fantasy novelists manage to be so all encompassing and creative in their world-building, or if this is particular to only a handful of authors. What I also really liked was the way that each of the different cultures in the book felt fully represented and had history behind them that could be analyzed for deeper understanding of the story and the world that it happened in. So in essence, I guess I agree with you!

Did you feel like the female characters in this book were different than those that normally populate fantasy novels? How so? For that matter, were the males different?

Aarti: To be fair, I think fantasy has changed a lot in this respect more recently, and is populated by many stronger female characters that previously.  But sometimes to excessive extents.  For example, I didn't love Miranda in this book because she just seemed so extreme and crazy at the start (though she was much more likable towards the end).  In a way, she was almost a caricature of someone's harridan wife, which I didn't appreciate.  But then there was Jehane, who was so fabulous on so many levels, and I loved her.  She was strong, but not pushy.  And when she was pushy, she realized it and changed her behavior.  She remains one of my favorite characters in literature.

As for the males, I don't think they were that different than the "norm" for fantasy or for books in general.  But I hope my saying that doesn't take away from how well-written these characters were.  There were many more secondary male characters than female, and all of them had complex motivations and histories that I felt fully bound up in.  I think Kay did a fantastic job of bringing all his characters to life. 

Heather: This is a hard question for me to answer because I read so little fantasy, that I fear I may think a little in terms of stereotyping when it comes to its lead female characters. Originally this is something that kept me away from the genre, because I think I had the mistaken interpretation that most female fantasy characters were more the powerless and dreamy types. I am not quite sure where I got this idea, and as you mention, the role of women in fantasy is changing. I see that in a lot of fantasy books being reviewed nowadays. There weren't a whole lot of females in this book, but ones that were there really challenged my beliefs and kept me intrigued. I agree that Miranda was a little bit of a pill, but I liked that she was strong and independent. I really fell in love with Jehane for the same reasons, but to a much stronger degree. She had such a complex moral structure and was not in the least flighty or indecisive. I liked that she was so driven and focused and that she possessed so much courage. She could be a little opinionated at times, but I felt that she had a lot of character and that she was the type of woman who was determined to see things through to the end. I liked Jehane a whole heck of a lot!

The males were a varied and complex lot, and what I think I appreciated most about them is that they were not just black and white in their thinking and behavior. Their motivations really intrigued me, as did their strong belief in honor. All the men in this story were multi-faceted, which is another thing that I really enjoyed about them.
What are some of the components that make this one of your favorite reads?

Aarti: Gosh, I don't know.  That's like someone asking me why green is my favorite color.  How can I explain?  It just is.  I think I first read this book when I was beginning to understand that history is not all black and white- that there are goods and bads on both the winning and losing sides of a war, and that there have been many episodes throughout history that have changed the world drastically- either for better or for worse, and often both at the same time.  And for me, this book so fully encompasses all the conflicting feelings attached to that loss of naivete.  It does so well in describing so many sides of a very complicated issue, and I love it for that more than for anything else, I think.  But yes... I also love it because it is home to one of my literary crushes ;-)

Heather: I think this was a favorite read for me because it blew away any preconceived notions I had about fantasy, and it did it with finesse. It actually made me really excited about the limitless possibilities of the fantasy genre as a whole to an uneducated fantasy reader like myself. And I agree that Kay's ability to present history as an expanse of varying grays was wonderful as well.

If you had to convince someone to read this book, what would you tell them, and which parts of the story would be your selling points?

Aarti: I think I'd probably just start gushing about all the stuff I mention above and not stop until the person agreed to submit to my better judgment ;-)

Heather: I would probably push this as the type of book that you become easily lost in, with characters that seem to jump off the page. I would also point out that the book gives you a lot to think about, not only in terms of the story it tells, but the implications that it makes on religion, war and humanity. If that doesn't sway them, then the mention of the heartthrob Ammar might just do the trick!

In this book, Kay creates a lot of unconventional relationships, both romantic and platonic. Which ones stand out the most to you and why?

Aarti: I think the whole central triangle of Jehane, Ammar and Rodrigo still stands out to me the most, though I feel like I understood it on a different level this read-through than I did the first time.  I realized this time that it isn't just Rodrigo and Ammar "fighting" for Jehane.  It's their love and respect for each other, too.  And Jehane's appreciation of both their personalities and strengths.  There was just so much between the three of them, and all of them were so altered by the experience of being in each other's company.  It was glorious to read.

Heather: I can't believe that I asked this question, as it is so hard for me to answer! I also liked relationship between Jehane, Rodrigo, and Ammar, but I think that what really made the most impression on me were the smaller relationships in the book. Like the one between Ammar and Jehane's father, or the one between King Badir and his adviser. They were not the main focus of book, so it might be easy to overlook them, but to me they were almost as touching and resonant as bigger relationships in the story. I guess that is one of the things that I most liked about the book in general; even the secondary characters and plots felt finely tuned and well developed enough to stand alone.

If Kay were to write a sequel to this book, where would you like to see it go?

Aarti: I actually don't know if I'd want to see a sequel.  I guess if there was one, I'd want to see it pick up later, maybe with the next generation.  Though really, considering how many wars happened in the era, I feel that it would probably be a pretty similar book.  I think I'd much prefer a prequel to a sequel.  All about Ammar!

Heather: I think I'd actually like to see more of a spin-off book that deals with life in King Badir's court. I guess it would probably be a prequel as well. There were so many interesting things about that realm, and while I was reading I was hungering for more of it.


  1. I get the distinct impression that I really need to read this author. I have heard nothing but good things about him!

    Thanks for the joint review.

  2. Anonymous10/29/2010

    I've been staring at this book at bookshops for so many years but still haven't read it yet. I LOVE the cover art, it's SO beautiful, and reading about how much both of you loved it really makes me want to try it! Especially since the story is set in such a rich and complex world.

  3. I was so thrilled to have read this book with you Aarti, and it has really made me want to read everything Kay has written. I love the way that he thoroughly embellishes all the aspects of the story, and the characters are really unforgettable. Even now, months later, I am still going over the book in my mind and thinking about the political, social, and religious statements that Kay made with his story. Next up for me is A Song For Arbonne, since you have mentioned that it's one of your other favorites.

  4. Greta joint review! I do like two opinions in one post

    Oh no, I read that previous comment, A song for Arbonne is good? My buddy has that one

  5. GGK's books are all well above average well it comes complexity and characters that make you love them. Lions is my personal favorite, although I read Tigana and the Fionavar tapestry several times as well. I find his more recent books less compelling, but can unreservedly recommend everything up through the Sarantine Mosaic.

  6. Anonymous10/30/2010

    I really need to re-visit Kay one of these days. I totally agree about the world building...he's a master.

  7. I've never ready Kay, but I'm pretty sure I have this book on my shelves. I'll have to dig it out!

  8. I don't read a lot of fantasy but I love historical fiction so this one sounds like the perfect blend for me!

  9. I read historical fiction and fantasy and this sounds perfect. It's even in my current time line obsession.

  10. Anonymous11/17/2010

    I read this book in middle school! I even wrote a book report on it that included a drawing of the characters... Sigh.

    But I had forgotten all about it until I read your review. I think it's probably time for a re-read.

    Because re-reading my book report and comparing it to this review makes me realize I missed a whole heck of a lot!


I read every comment posted on this blog, even if it sometimes takes me a while to respond. Thank you for taking the time and effort to comment here! Unless you are spamming me, in which case, thanks for nothing.