The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. ★★★★
The Lions of Al-Rassan is hard to describe. It’s usually classed as a fantasy, sometimes an epic fantasy more often as a historical fantasy, which is probably the best name for it. I.e. there’s no magic or dragons or unusual world building. Instead, it’s an alternate version of the reconquest of Spain. The names and theology of the religions have been changed, but it’s very obvious which ones are the equivalents for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Against this background, there are an almost overwhelming number of characters. Luckily, the book comes with a character guide at the beginning – you’ll need it. Three characters really stand out: Ammar ibn Khairan, Rodrigo Belmonte, and Jehane bet Ishak. Each of these three characters comes from a different faith and culture, yet their fates become intertwined. Ammar is the chief adviser of the king of Cartada in Al-Rassan until a day of savagery changes everything. Rodrigo is the most famous military leader of Vallado, one of the three northern Jaddite (Christian) kingdoms. Jehane is a woman in a man’s world, a accomplished physician of the Kindath (Jewish) faith.
This is what I find The Lions of Al-Rassan does best – taking these disparate characters and weaving together their friendship. However, with the Iberian peninsula on the brink of Holy War, nothing can stay unchanged. The ending wasn’t completely tragic, but I can’t call it happy either.
The Lions of Al-Rassan is slow to start out. Yes, things are happening, but there’s not a feeling of overwhelming urgency until four hundred pages in. That, along with the hoard of character’s, is the flaw of the book. It’s not an easy read – you will have to dedicate your time and your attention. However, if you’re prepared for a book that requires some brain power and if you have a passing interest in history or historical fiction, you will find The Lions of Al-Rassan worthwhile.