Guy Gavriel Kay has been on my “must try” list for years. I have heard him recommended so many times and I have come across devoted fans that will praise his prose endlessly. And on top of that, he writes stand-alone novels, so there is no fear of commitment here. With all of that, I have no idea why I have not read one of his novels previously. But, I nominated The Lions of Al-Rassan for one of my book club reads and happily it won. No more excuses, it was time to actually read.
So, now that I have read it, do I think it is worthy of the praise I have heard? Absolutely. Kay’s prose is just wonderful to read. Lions of Al-Rassan is a historical fantasy with very little magic. Similar to K. J. Parker’s work, this one is a fictional world that mirrors ours. But the strengths of this book are different than Parker. Kay’s prose has a more fluid feel, while Parker has more mystery/layers. I don’t think one is better than the other; they just have a little bit different feel reading them, even though in some ways they are similar.
One of the first things I took note about this book is that it is brutal. At least there is a very brutal scene in the beginning. I was surprised just because I have never heard that mentioned of Kay’s books before. And reading on, I don’t know if it is indicative of all his books, but for this one, it made so much sense for him to capture atrocities of war and present them to the reader for this particular book. Because when it’s all said and read, this book is about war. It’s about intolerance, differences in religions and cultures and how people stereotype and treat each other. It is also about how people don’t need to be evil to be driven to carry out what would otherwise be evil deeds. It’s all in the name of war or religion. Or both. It would be hard to really drive home the brutality of war without showing it. There is a shock value there that just can’t be accomplished otherwise. And I’m not saying that Kay is very graphic, he’s not. It’s just the events themselves that are harsh.
A real strength of this book is that each of the three protagonists represents a different culture. It is much harder to pick a side to root for or against when you see each side humanized instead of stereotyped. And by some fate, they have wound up traveling together and have to face divided loyalties. I love books that make characters reflect on choices and loyalties. I love when the other side is shown as actual people with their own reasons and motivations instead of just being “good guys” vs. “bad guys”. Because lets face it, in reality, every side thinks of themselves as the good guys.
Another strength of this book is the women characters. Jehane is one of our three main protagonists and is by all means a strong female character. She is not a fighter, she is a doctor so I don’t mean strong as in physically strong (I never do when I say that, I think a female character can be portrayed as physically strong, but still be weak). The only point I came even close to having a complaint about in this book was I felt like everyone was falling in love with Jehane. But that is not a real complaint, it really didn’t bother me, and I guess she was a remarkable woman. In addition to Jehane, there were a couple of secondary women characters that were also strong and fun to read.
Something else I enjoy in this book is the way Kay will allude to events being one way, causing the reader to make assumptions, only to turn the tables and reveal something else. As a reader, you then have evaluate and realize how easily you can come to false conclusions. Even after you catch on, it’s still fun because it makes the book less predictable.
And as for the ending of this book, I absolutely love the way it was done. I don’t want to say more because I want to keep this spoiler free, but fantastic ending. Kay’s prose, story telling, world building and characters are all just beautifully done.I highly recommend this book to anyone, and I look forward to reading my next book by Kay.