Review | The Lions of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay

About the Book

The ruling Asharites of Al-Rassan have come from the desert sands, but over centuries, seduced by the sensuous pleasures of their new land, their stern piety has eroded. The Asharite empire has splintered into decadent city-states led by warring petty kings. King Almalik of Cartada is on the ascendancy, aided always by his friend and advisor, the notorious Ammar ibn Khairan — poet, diplomat, soldier — until a summer afternoon of savage brutality changes their relationship forever.

Meanwhile, in the north, the conquered Jaddites’ most celebrated — and feared — military leader, Rodrigo Belmonte, driven into exile, leads his mercenary company south.

In the dangerous lands of Al-Rassan, these two men from different worlds meet and serve — for a time — the same master. Sharing their interwoven fate — and increasingly torn by her feelings — is Jehane, the accomplished court physician, whose own skills play an increasing role as Al-Rassan is swept to the brink of holy war, and beyond.

Hauntingly evocative of medieval Spain, The Lions of Al-Rassanis both a brilliant adventure and a deeply compelling story of love, divided loyalties, and what happens to men and women when hardening beliefs begin to remake — or destroy — a world. 

528 pages (paperback)
Published on June 28, 2005
Buy the book

Recently, my family has been going through some things. My mother informed us she’s been diagnosed with incredibly aggressive cancer. Then, exactly one week later, my dad’s twin brother took the dog for a walk, and died. 

So, I’ve been at a bit of an emotional overload. I think my whole family has been. It’s been a rough go, and I find I’m either emotionally trigger happy, or just numb and I can never quite predict where I’m going to fall on this spectrum from moment to moment.

I’ve been finding solace in books, because that’s where I go to find stories full of people feeling all sorts of things I can’t put into words. 

I was really in the mood for an epic fantasy that is sweeping in scope but gorgeously written. Guy Gavriel Kay came to mind right away. However, I haven’t read anything of his aside from Tigana. In truth, Kay intimidates me. He is one of those authors that is so prolific, so incredibly well-known, and revered, it’s hard to figure out where to really start with him. So, he’s always mostly remained an author I admire, but one I watched from a distance, never up close. 

But these are rare times in my life, and I really needed a story written by an author who knows how to sweep his readers away. After some research, I decided to settle on The Lions of Al-Rassan. Now, I will say, I listened to this as an audiobook, and it was absolutely superb in every respect, so I highly advise it you do audiobooks. The narrator really had the right tone for the story being told and made it super easy to just sink into. 

It’s really hard to review this book without spoilers. I suppose what I’ll do is give you the broad strokes about what appealed to me the most, and what I took from this book. Basically, what I needed, and what The Lions of Al-Rassan offered. 

“He opened his arms and she moved into the space they made in the world, and laying her head against his chest she permitted herself the almost unimaginable luxury of grief.” 

First of all, just look at that writing. The entire book is written like that. The mark of a truly good book, for me, is one that is written with both a gripping story, and prose you can just get lost in, and that’s what I found here. The story itself is fascinating. A sort of clash of cultures, and three religions converging in one place. Plenty of action and adventure and lots of twists and turns you absolutely cannot look away from, but over all of that is this writing that is positively dipped in gold. Every word chosen with care. Every phrase doled out exactly when and how it needs to be, for maximum impact. The settings he describes, the personal journey, the emotional tapestry is all so vivid and stunningly crafted, it is impossible not to feel as though you are transported through the pages and actually there. 

Along with that, I was positively amazed by how Kay worked with all the emotional notes in this book. I feel like a lot of the time, books full of action fall flat on emotion and that’s not something I encountered here. In fact, I found a wide range of well-hewn characters, each of them a storm of chaotic emotion that is just as strong and untampered as my own. And, to be honest, there were quite a few times that this book leveled me in that respect, and I’d find myself listening to a passage a few times before moving on. I was just amazed that Kay managed to bring the human experience to page so perfectly. 

“And surely, surely, if we are not simply animals that live to fight, there must be a reason for bloodshed.” 

Kay writes in a style that flirts with historical fantasy, but isn’t quite that. The reason I say this, is because while his books are largely based on very well researched historical events, they are set in secondary worlds, with cultures and peoples that are just different enough to be truly their own thing. While The Lions of Al-Rassan is obviously heavily influenced by certain periods of history, I enjoyed seeing how Kay took real-world inspiration, and moved it to the left just enough to make it his own thing. This gave the book a feel of both familiarity and new that really intrigued me. 

Kay’s characters play off both each other, and the situations they find themselves in quite well. I will say, there are long moments of internal dialogue and thought, but that didn’t bother me in the least. It helped flesh out the characters so they were just as vivid as the world they were put in. However, if you’re a reader who is more prone to “let’s move on with it already” thoughts regarding internal dialogues, then this might be something to be aware of before you dip your toes into this particular book.

I feel as though I’ve said a lot without saying anything at all. I haven’t touched on the plot. I haven’t talked about the characters in depth or anything else, and honestly, I don’t really intend to. I feel like everyone in the world has read this book and I’m the last one on the boat. I don’t think there is anything new I can add that hasn’t already been said. 

The Lions of Al-Rassan was an absolutely fantastic book that is as emotionally intense and real as the world itself. The characters are larger than life, and absolutely unforgettable. While the conflict in the book is obviously based on historical events, it is different enough to feel solidly secondary world. Guy Gavriel Kay is an author who, deservedly, is highly respected, and this book is a fantastic example of why. He is a giant showing a new way to tell stories. 

Absolutely unforgettable.

5/5 stars

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