Guy Gavriel Kay is fond of, even dedicated to, taking elements, times and situations from medieval Europe and transposing them into a fantasy world; a touch altered, a touch amended, but clearly recognisable to anyone with a little historical knowledge. In this volume he's chosen the theme of the Reconquista, the Christian reconquest of Spain, with its attendant overthrow of the vastly more cultured and sophisticated Moorish principalities in the peninsula.
Working within the bounds of a single novel, Kay's chosen to pack the historical reality into a much tighter time-span; the actual Reconquista took about four hundred years, Kay compresses it into no more than thirty-five. Brief pro- and epilogues let him sketch the beginnings and ends of the process, but the meat of the novel covers only a crucial one-year period roughly at the mid point of the struggle.
In brief, the previous dominant power in Esperana, the great Asharite (Moorish) Caliphate, has fallen through civil war and weak rule into a dozen contentious city-states. In the extreme north the Jaddite (Christian) realms are beginning to exploit the new balance of power and stir themselves avariciously southwards. Outside the peninsula wider forces are also in play. The greater Jaddite kingdoms are about to plunge into the horrors of the first Crusade, and fanatical clerics see Esperana as one more part of a continental struggle to destroy the Asharite infidels. Then again, in the Majriti desert (Africa), the intolerant Muwardi tribes are equally intent on invasion in order to purge the weak and decadent local Asharite princes of their corrupt practices, kill all the Kindath (Jews), and slaughter all the Jaddites.
Into this stew of politics (it is a very, very political novel), Kay throws three principal characters; the Kindath physician, Jehane bet Ishak, the Jaddite Captain, Rodrigo Belmonte, and the Asharite poet, warrior and assassin, Ammar ibn Khairan. Each of these is, in their own fashion, the finest exemplar of their race and their profession. They are, inasmuch as Kay can make them, cosmopolitan, urbane, honourable, sophisticated and possessed of their own brand of integrity. In them, Kay displays everything that is finest about a unique moment in time, a unique mingling of cultures and civilisations. And more, they swiftly become friends, serving for a single year the same petty city-king in the east of Esperana.
Politics, of course, will not allow this flowering of culture and toleration to persist. Resist it though they may, the local powers are steadily pressured to the point of explosive confrontation, and the tide of intolerance laps higher and higher. Caught in an inescapable mesh of history and expectation, the major characters are left with no room to manoeuvre and must ultimately choose their sides and act out their appointed part, even though they fully recognise the futility of the struggle and the baseness of the great majority of the participants.
In short, Kay has constructed, with considerable polish and style, a striking tragedy, an elegy even (it is also a very, very poetic novel), for the finer qualities and accomplishments of humanity, inevitably torn down by the forces of chaos and bigotry.
But, there are some problems here, and they aren't trivial ones.
Kay likes clever characters. He likes his characters to be brilliant. He insists they be brilliant! Not content with having them display their brilliance by word and deed, he also likes to have them pay each other appropriate compliments (of the "oh, aren't you clever!" variety), and if that's not enough, he, as narrator, will directly inform us that they are brilliant.
This rapidly gets wearing.
Kay also insists that his tale is tragic. Grandly tragic. He heightens every emotional relationship in the book to an almost unbearable fever-pitch. Nobody loves like the characters in his novels, nobody feels pain the way they do. Nobody has more to lose because everybody central to the plot is so extraordinarily endowed with beauty, wit, passion and talent. By the end of the story, as the confrontation nears its climax, Kay is virtually dancing in a frenzy on the side-lines screaming, "Look! Look! They've all got so much to lose! And someone's going to! Someone's going to die! Isn't it awful! Isn't it terrible!"
When you add to this a prose that has always been quite mannered, quite deliberately styled, you realise that you've stumbled out of a really quite decent story, into something that can only be described as pretentious. If this is the first of Kay's novels that you've read, you're likely to be swept along quite easily by the flow of images and events, but if you're familiar with his work then his foibles are going to be more apparent, and irritating. The Lions of Al-Rassan can't be read as a self-parody, but it's heading that way.
My advice for Kay; talk about your characters less, show us their actions more, and don't let them form a mutual back-slapping society.
My advice for the readers; well, it's oddly paradoxical. If you're new to Kay, read this book, it's a decent introduction to his style and ideas. But if you really like his material, don't read this one, it's overblown and might leave a bad taste in your mouth. Instead, skip ahead to the Sarantine Mosaic (which is set in the same world, though at an earlier date), which is a better piece of work, with much more genuine pathos, and a plot-line that keeps Kay's witty, brilliant, splendid characters somewhat under control.
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© Simeon Shoul 4 August 2001