The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Guy Gavriel Kay is an author who gets a lot of respect from writers. Brandon Sanderson has said that we’re all just trying to be as good as Guy Gavriel Kay. If that’s true, then after reading The Lions of Al-Rassan I’m starting to think he’s the Bob Dylan of fantasy writers.
That is to say he’s a good writer, who knows how to build characters and put words together. The way he does it in this book has some serious flaws that left me dreading to pick it up, and with no real interest in the characters or what happened to them. This book gets three stars because it is a well-written piece of literature, with a plot that works, but it’s nothing more than that. In terms of pacing and story structure, I also found it to be quite a bit off.
Three major problems kept me from enjoying this book, and I’ll start with the world. What Kay did with this book was to take Medieval Spain, with its well-known conflict between Christians, Muslim, and Jews, and change the names. Let me be clear: this is not Medieval Spain, it is not alternte history. This is a fantasy world with two moons and different constellations that just happens to have the exact same geography as Spain. So does the rest of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Gee, that’s funny. The three sects are Asharites (Muslims), Jaddites (Christians), and the Kindath (Jews). If these were three groups that Kay had invented and come up with a good reason for them to be at odds, then it would be interesting. Unfortunately, he chose to have many of the same practices, beliefs, and prejudices that the real-world groups have. The biggest one is the blood libel, used against the Kindath.
My question is that if the correspondence was going to be so strong, why didn’t he just write about actual Christians, Jews, and Muslims in medieval Spain? I kept reading this thinking it was a very very very very thinly veiled, very nineties attack on Christians and their history (with enough attacks on Jews and Muslims to make it fair). This sort of thing was very popular in the eighties and nineties (as in The Mists of Avalon), and Kay’s choices don’t make it hard to see it this way. As it was, it was either a not-very-creative fantasy world, or a bad historical fiction.
Kay’s characters also kept me from really getting into this book. There’s a doctor, a few kings, and some concubines and courtesans, and a few young men learning their way in the world. And of course the poet. They’d be interesting if they didn’t insist on acting in such implausible ways. The main point of implausibility is their sexual choices: the characters in this book just can’t stop doinking. It’s insane. There is a stretch of at least 60 pages in the mass-market paperback that is all people doing it. There’s a lot of comparing breasts to pears and melons… . Much of the sex is completely inconsequential, which is really hard to believe in a population without established methods of birth control (yes, medieval birth control existed but it’s never mentioned in this book). Not only is much of it meaningless to the plot, it’s meaningless to the characters. I just don’t believe in meaningless sex, I guess, but if it’s meaningless pleasure that has no effect on the plot, why is it in the book?
I just don’t buy that a physician, a woman in her late twenties, who is portrayed as overly sensible would “take a young man into her bed” for some meaningless pleasure without thinking there would be any consequences in terms of their relationship. I’m having a hard time imagining this character doing that. And then he’s just got a crush on her, from a distance…still? After having sex with her? He still just watches her from afar, thinking he can’t have her…after he “had” her? What the…? I just don’t get it. So sex is just meaningless to this woman to the point where she’d have sex with a nineteen year-old boy just because she felt like it one night and then the rest of the book she’s…what the hell, nevermind. I think I’ve made my point. Even if you do believe people can have sex without emotional or other consequences, you still have to question what’s going on with this character.
I’m just not buying it.
The last thing I found annoying was the structure: constant back and forth, summary and rehash, and huge events just glossed over. That made it hard to follow.
The overall effect of all this was that I didn’t look forward to reading this book. The test of a four or five star book is that I think about the characters when I’m not reading the book. These characters were so implausible that I just didn’t think about them. When I picked up the book, I was just thinking “what implausible thing are they going to do in the next chapter?” There were a few tense situations, and a few that I really enjoyed, but the whole book was not engaging.
P.S.: Tigana was a much better book; more imaginative, better characters, actually compelling, but I still didn’t think it was that great. I mean, what were those people doing it in the closet for? See, same problem.
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The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay