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The Lions of al-Rassan - Guy Gavriel Kay

I loved this book. The story is seductive and engaging, the characters are adult, well-rounded and sophisticated, the writing style is very versatile: it offers both lavish descriptions, witty dialogues, elegant poetry, emotion and brutal detachment to a great, immersive effect. Subtle, delicate, harrowing, the plot entertains and develops with depth of themes, drama, humour and evenly paced action. It is historical fantasy, with little or none fantastic elements.

The characters and the current geo-polical situation are introduced following a routine day in the life of the physician Jehane bet Ishak, of the ostracized Kindaith faith, in one of the main cities of the Asharite land of Al-Rassan. She is a woman with agency in lands and in an age where it is difficult to be such, fighting for her autonomy standing on her own merits. Along with her, we met Ammar ibn Khairan of Aljais, the poet who murdered the last khalif of Silvanes, debonair, beguiling and Asharite, and the former constable of Valledo, Rodrigo Belmonte, strong, possessed of a keen intelligence and Jaddite.

“You touched people’s lives, glancingly, and those lives changed forever.”

The different factions come alive thought the book with impeccable timing, while the story deepens and the reader gains more insight about the political strife within and without the kingdoms. Though the relationship between the three main characters (and the relationship between the two men, a real masterpiece) is one of the main elements of the book, the whole cast offers an interesting variety of human types and implications, much to the delight of the reader who likes both character and action-driven books, surely not an easy balance to achieve. The author blends different cultures into a beguiling tale of warring states, sultry decline, petty revenges, human ambition, atrocities, greed and religious hatred, but also love, loyalty, growth, understanding and healing, where people pay the price of pursuing their dreams, and where the free will of the characters, and chance history, will shape the future of a whole land.

“It isn’t a dream any more. The world has changed. When you can do what you dreamed about, sometimes it isn’t … as simple any more.”

The whole book feels meticulously researched and it adds a lot to the realism of the events and the many skills of the characters, as Kay takes the historical patterns of the time of the Reconquista, and of the three main Faiths as recorded in such turbulent centuries. He opens the story in a moment of simmering conflict and precarious balance between two main cultures, with the minority group of another aware of the need to cope with the consequences. In the echoes of a long time ago peninsula Iberica, I found many points to think about our world current situation, the complexity born of mingling religion and politics, the nature of ambitions, the inevitability of change and surely, the bittersweet beauty of human condition.

“The deeds of men, as footprints in the desert.”

That is one of the main reasons I love fantasy literature: it is all about us, with imagination and the gloves off.

"War was good, a holy war was the best thing in the world."

Moving in the shift winds that herald change, forever, the factions meet, clash, mingle, offer empty platitudes or forge timeless bonds, show weaknesses and strengths. Beneath the most evident messages, such as the possibility of a civilized world which shuns prejudice and fanaticism, there is a fascinating highlight on the power of self, on the impact of choices, on the beauty and pain of some experiences, on the longing for lost grace and the renewal of hope. Kay does not portray helpless humanity or perfect heroes, nor does he shy from the consequences of the morality and the violence of those times.

“Over and above all this, of course, there was pride. There was always pride.”

I picked the The Lions of Al-Rassan thanks to all the great recommendations I received as a reader who loves Janny Wurts. This kind of stories is not easy, for structure, for nuances, for complexity and themes, for the many explorations of the gamut of the human spirit, but they are of utmost fulfilling emotional reward. In a book, I want to be entertained; I want to laugh at clever humor and read about compelling characters, layered and ever developing, I want to follow an engaging story, unpredictable, twisty and original; I want to read great prose. But the books that I will always remember are those which stir something in me, and I both embrace and eschew this kind of sensations, because it can also be a little scary. The beauty of focusing my thoughts, of living a book, is also the risk to let the reading touch me deeply, to let my feelings be vulnerable to what a story, an author is prompting me to experience for myself. The Lions of Al-Rassan resonated with my inner chords and I am drained, but grateful.

“One sun for the god. Two moons for his beloved sisters. Uncountable stars to shine in the night.”