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review 2018-08-09 21:57
“He was in Al-Rassan, land of terror and legend.”
The Lions of al-Rassan - Guy Gavriel Kay

My first GGK and the rest of his oeuvre instantly becomes Must Read. If he ever does a London signing I’ll be there, just to check he’s real and not from outer space. This novel is utterly, exquisitely, wonderful.

A young Kindath (Jewish) Doctor, Jehane, practising in the Asharite (Muslim) city of Fezana, is summoned by the genial Khalif-killing Ammar ibn Khairan to administer to a sick family friend. To the north lies the split Jaddite (Christian) kingdom of Esperana and despite the tributes paid tensions are brewing. What follows in Fezana becomes known as the “Day of the Moat” and if you think “Game Of Thrones” has tailed off and George isn’t going to finish the books anytime soon stop everything, get thee to your bookseller of choice and put your phone on mute. “Lions” is intoxicating.

Sometimes, rarely actually, you come across a writer who, when it comes to writing a review of his material, renders you painfully aware that your facility with words is as naught compared to his. This is an exceptionally well written novel – you know you’re in safe hands right from the off – and once you get a handle on the geography and the alt-faiths in play the characterisations and storytelling verve sweep you away. The storyline is complex but clear (huge kudos for the clarity, at no point was I lost) with political maneuverings, divided loyalties, romance, sex, a fantastic arrow shot from Miranda Belmonte, a young boy with a touch of farsight, a young solider wondering whether he’s made the right career choice and above all peoples of different faiths coming together to do incredible things while the world burns around them. While the prologue scene of assassination is a great hook (and has far-reaching consequences) for my money it’s with the introduction to Jehane in Chapter 1 where Kay’s supernatural talent for characterisation kicks in. This novel has many passionate things to say about faith and civilisation but that difficult to pin down, secret sauce, to my mind, is Kay’s ability to really make you connect with the characters. No exaggeration, while reading this on the London Underground there were moments I had to put it aside because I was close to bawling my eyes out.

Kay suggests beauty, poetry, friendship, family and inter-faith solidarity as the hallmarks of civilisation and they all go straight out of the window when Kings start plotting. Ragosa has a carnival the day before horrifying things start happening and the contrast is stark. Characters of all faiths in this novel are merrily sexually liberal, Khairan and Belmonte both acknowledge their manly love for each other, while Jehane, woman of agency though she is, has at least three men in play at one point. Good for her. Kay calmly depicts people of different faiths getting on perfectly well with each other on the micro level, but viciously slaughtering each other on the macro. The growing friendship and respect is never hammered home, you just start to slowly notice it (“proof that men of different worlds can blend and mingle those worlds”) until events crescendo to that medical procedure which never could have occurred without cooperation and then the final, tragic, silhouetted encounter between Rodrigo Belmonte and Khairan, “the two most brilliant comets in the sky”. All of this plus knock-out lines: “The deeds of men are as footprints in the desert”; “Work was sometimes the only barrier there was between life and the emptiness beyond”; “Sometimes the heart’s arrow found its way to certainty despite the cautionings of a careful nature” and above all “Destroy Cartada”. Finally, leaving three full wineglasses on the rim of a fountain as your final image in a novel like this is beyond elegant. Bravo!

So yeah, I liked it. I’m pretty shell-shocked, actually. It’s so great when you have a first encounter with an author that makes you want to read everything they’ve ever written. Fingers crossed Amazon or Netflix or HBO or whoever don’t snap this up and turn it into just another piece of good-looking content. This sort of novel deserves to be cherished for what it is. Then again “some people you just couldn’t help, no matter how you tried.”

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review 2017-08-01 00:00
The Lions of al-Rassan
The Lions of al-Rassan - Guy Gavriel Kay 4.5 stars
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review 2017-05-06 20:22
Review: The Lions of Al-Rassan
The Lions of al-Rassan - Guy Gavriel Kay

The Lions of Al-Rassan is the second book I’ve read by Guy Gavriel Kay, the first being Tigana.  I really enjoy his writing style.  One thing in particular that I’ve enjoyed about both books is that they each managed to satisfy my epic fantasy cravings within a single, standalone novel.  I enjoy a good epic fantasy series, but a standalone does have the advantage of being easier to fit into my reading schedule.


The story involves the cultural and religious conflicts between various factions in a peninsula on a fictional world.  We follow some of the more influential characters from those different cultures, most of whom are very likeable, as their goals coincide and conflict with each other.  The author writes characters and camaraderie very well.  Sometimes I thought there was a little too much melodrama, and sometimes events were a bit too coincidental, but mostly it was a well-written and engaging story. 

It did get to the point where I was laughing every time yet another person ended up in Ragosa, though!  And I laughed even harder when one of the characters remarked on it also.

(spoiler show)


It’s probably arguable whether this book really counts as fantasy.  It definitely has a solid epic fantasy feel, depending I guess on what you think of when you hear “epic fantasy”, and it’s clearly set on a fictional world with two moons.  However, there weren’t really any actual fantastical elements aside from one secondary character with an unexplained special ability.  The story and setting are inspired by and have some parallels in real-world history.


It was easy to decide on a 4.5 star rating on the sites where I can give half stars, but it was much, much harder to decide whether to round up or down on Goodreads.  In the end, I decided to round down.  There was just a little too much bitter in the bittersweet ending, however much I expected it.  I also felt frustrated with some of the characters’ choices, and there was the aforementioned melodrama and coincidences.  Overall, though, I really enjoyed reading this book and I was completely engrossed by it while I was reading it.  I’ll likely try to fit Kay’s work back into my reading schedule sooner rather than later.

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text 2017-01-12 20:44
7 Favorites of 2016
Bone - Jeff Smith
The Ballad of Black Tom - Victor LaValle
The Lies of Locke Lamora - Scott Lynch
The Lions of al-Rassan - Guy Gavriel Kay
The Iron Jackal (Tales of the Ketty Jay Book 3) - Chris Wooding
The Fear Institute - Jonathan L. Howard
The Fisherman - John Langan

Yeah, it's a little late, but these are my favorites of the books I  read last year. I'm only listing one per author/series, and I am not including short stories, but one novella did make the list, as did one graphic novel. So, in no particular order, my favorite books read in 2016


1. Bone - Jeff Smith  Bone - Jeff Smith  


    Easily the longest book I read  last year, and the one I'd been wanting to read the longest. I remember reading an interview with Smith when this was first being serialized about twenty years ago. Basically, if Carl Barks (of the old Donald Duck/Uncle Scrooge comics) had written LOTR... It's gorgeously drawn, and surprisingly deep, epic and hilarious in equal measure. Despite being over 1300 pages long, I read it in a day. It is truly that compelling.


2. The Ballad of Black Tom - Victor LaValle  The Ballad of Black Tom - Victor LaValle 


    I read a lot of Lovecraftiana in 2016, but this was easily the best example. This novella is an inspired retelling of "The Horror at Red Hook," easily one of Lovecrafts most racist stories, that flips the whole thing on it's head. The main character goes down some dark paths, but you always understand why. This tale both celebrates and excoriates HPL while telling a great story in it's own right.


3. The Lies of Locke Lamora - Scott Lynch  The Lies of Locke Lamora - Scott Lynch  


    The first, and easily best, of the Gentleman Bastards series, this introduces us to a spectacular crew of conn artists as they take on a huge job in a fantastic city reminiscent of Renaissance Venice. Told in both flashback and present day, with truly remarkable characters, this book should be read by any fantasy fan. The rest of the series thus far has been a case of diminishing returns, but still fun. Either way, I'm in it for the long haul.


4. The Lions of al-Rassan - Guy Gavriel Kay  The Lions of al-Rassan - Guy Gavriel Kay  


    Loosely based on Song of the Cid, this is a flat-out gorgeous novel that deals with heavy themes while still being very funny and entertaining. Thhis also may have been the best-written book I read last year.


5. The Iron Jackal (Tales of the Ketty Jay Book 3) - Chris Wooding  The Iron Jackal (Tales of the Ketty Jay Book 3) - Chris Wooding  


    I read and loved the entire Ketty Jay series in '16. Still, this penultimate volume was the most epic and exciting, while also having several of the best character moments. It is almost too easy to describe this series as a steampunk-fantasy Firefly... So that is exactly what I'll do.


6. The Fear Institute - Jonathan L. Howard  The Fear Institute - Jonathan L. Howard  


   Another great Lovecraftian piece, albeit one deeply involved with old HP's Dreamlands, an aspect of his work too often ignored in favor of his Mythos. This is the third in Howard's Johannes Cabal series, and the first to feel like a genuine horror novel. This is my favorite of the five books in the series thus far.


7. The Fisherman - John Langan  The Fisherman - John Langan  


    True, there are other books I rated higher, but this one makes the list, if only for the novella that serves as the novel's centerpiece. The rest of the book is quite good, but Der Fischer is possibly the single greatest piece of cosmic horror I have yet to read. It is indebted to Lovecraft without using any of his actual narrative inventions, instead using Talmudic, Cabbalistic and Biblical sources for it's horrors. Truly amazing.

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review 2015-04-24 18:52
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.”

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