The Lions of al-Rassan is a fantasy novel by Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay. This novel, which is honestly less fantasy and more historic, is starkly reminiscent of medieval Spain. I, prior to reading this book, had no idea about the history of Spain, medieval or else. This is a really well-written book with witty, intelligent dialogues and descriptions. It is set in a peninsula with the lower half inhabited by Asharites (one of the three major faiths) and the upper half by Jaddites. There is one another faith – Kindath, the followers of which are impelled to live in anonymity in order to survive.
This book focuses around three main characters, each sharing different faiths. The first character is Jehane bet Ishak, the female lead, who is a Kindath physician. Second main character is Ammar ibn Khairan, an Asharite, who is a poet, diplomat and the finest Asharite swordsman, who later becomes the love-interest of Jehane. The final main character of the book is Rodrigo Belmonte, who is the greatest warrior in the all of the three Jaddite kingdoms.
Owing to some interesting turns of fate, these three characters find themselves serving the same king – King Badir of Ragosa, an Asharite. A large chunk of the story is composed of the events concerning these three characters’ time in Ragosa. The once-powerful Asharites are much weakened and vulnerable, having succumbed to the luxuries of their new land (they were originally desert warriors, some others sharing their faith still live in deserts). The Jaddite priests force the Jaddite kings (who are not so unwilling) to attack the ripe-for-plucking Asharite kingdoms in the name of holy war. Gradually, whole peninsula is thrown into chaos. Ammar ibn Khairan and Rodrigo Belmonte, who fought for the same king not long ago, find themselves on the opposite sides of each other having preferred their old allegiances.
The novel is dominated by the theme of religions, faiths and their consequence on common people. The three main characters, who, while having different faiths, are kind and respectful of each other’s abilities. Not so the other people of the peninsula. Just like real-life, most of the people are hostile toward people with different faiths and always ready to hurt and kill them.
As mentioned earlier, this book is very well-written. The prose is elegant and flowing. Characters are well-drawn and gripping. I especially liked the character of Ammar ibn Khairan. This novel avoids the battle-scenes, only summarises them, so don’t expect a Steven Erikson or G.R.R. Martin here.
The soul of the book lies in the conversations and emotions. And, of course, prose. You will be hard-pressed to find a better language in a fantasy novel. This book provides tough competition to my all-time fantasy favourite – Under Heaven, by none other than Kay himself. It doesn’t matter if it is your first Kay book, first fantasy book, first historic book, or even first book, you are certain to like it.