The Lions of Al-Rassan

I have burned through about two hundred pages in two days, reading so fast that my mind could barely keep up.

In these times of overwrought, tedious or gluttonously long litrature occupying the lips of trendy book loving gourmands, it is nice to come across something that is actually enjoyable to read.

Far from the constipated Murakami or orally fixated GRR Martin, Guy Gavriel Kay is a delight to read. A friend suggested I read the “Lion’s of Al-Rassan” right after I spent an hour trashing Stephen King for his Maine fixations.

It didn’t start on a promising note, the genre of historical novels or fantasy historical novels is usual refuge to midiocre and unimaginative navel gazing. Yet this novel, a pastiche of about 600 years of Spanish Medieval history, is a treat because unlike it’s peers, it’s not an adolescent fantasy of conquest but a consummate tragedy.

Some astute students of history might even see a resemblance to the doomed Weimar Republic’s most promising torches – and a similar politics- but that exercise is joyless.

Our introduction to this wartorn land is not the usual orphan of destiny or grim conquerer but a female Jewish doctor. Never in all the war chants of holy war and reconquista is her voice lost, as marginalised as it is.

Indeed our leads are eccentric people of principles, struggling and drowing in the whirlwind of war though they may be the very paragons of romanticised virtue in that age. Our male protagonists are mirror images of each other both warrior and eventually friends deeply in love – yet they begin as different magnetic poles. One is a poet, a honourless king slayer, with no loyalty. The other is a veteran knight deeply entrenched in a militarised feudal order. The tragedy is how they can be nothing else no matter how deeply they do not want to be. Both of them become pawns in a holy war.

In the end it isn’t the military action or the battles that matter, it’s the slow intrigue, the tides of war shifting faster than the sands with no one but the most foolish or fracical feuds deciding the fates of millions. At the same time you have in small corners of the world uncertain, unconventional love growing in the shadows of tragedy.

The real triumph though, is that right up to the end of the novel, there’s a romance with the dying light of a fading golden age, the three leads and a host of other lovers (literally). Even up to the very end nothing is over, no one goes quietly as the light is cruelly snuffed out; fighting and negotiating as they can as the tides of history bring ruin. Indeed most of the novel is the slow setting of pieces, the tantalising “what-if’s” in a well corriographed end. When the lines are finally drawn and our charcters are on different sides of it – defeat and conquest- the culmination of hundreds of years happens in a few moments.

This is a deeply evocative and moving book. Simple, romantic and self contained in it’s story. A magnificent read.

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