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10:38 pm: Bouncy, bouncy, bouncy, bouncy! Oh, and a review.
Finished my novel today. Whee! It's somewhere in the neighborhood of 120,000 words, which is a good length. I'll be starting the next one, Loyalty's End, on Monday.

*pause for self-celebration*

As further proof that I am insane, I've started another novel that I won't be posting online, Starfire Nights, and plan to do about 2500 words a day on.

And I still have way too much energy.

So...

A review of one of my favorite books, The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. Once again, very minor spoilers for plot thingies that I don't think are important.

(My god, I said "thingies." Help).



Brief Summary: Three hundred years ago, the star-worshipping Asharites crossed the narrow strait between their homeland of the Majriti and the peninsula of EsperaƱa, and wrested the southern part away from the sun-worshipping Jaddites, penning them in the north. They established their own khalifate, Al-Rassan, with its own laws, where the Jaddites and the true minority religion, the Kindath, were welcome as long as they converted or paid heavy taxes not to convert. However, the khalifs waned in power, and the last one was assassinated fifteen years ago. Now the Jaddites are posed to make a comeback and sweep down on Al-Rassan, unless its defenders can protect it- but it's becoming more and more difficult to choose sides when ancient history, modern history, and nasty religious conflicts show up at every turn.

The Setting: Kay outdoes Martin's Westeros in the depth and richness of his world. I mean it. Al-Rassan and especially its two most beautiful cities, Silvenes and Ragosa, are made to be drooled over. This is the description of the fallen palace of Silvenes, from the prologue where one of the main characters visits it:

"In the heat of the day the gardens were deserted. All those still left within the dissolving magnificence of the Al-Fontina would have sought the shade of the innermost rooms. They would be sipping cool sweet wines or using the elaborately long spoons designed by Ziryani to taste sherbets kept frozen in the deep cellars by snow brought down from the mountains. Luxuries from another age, meant for very different men and women from those who dwelt here now.

"Thinking such thoughts, ibn Khairan walked noiselessly through the Garden of Oranges and, passing through the horseshoe arch, into the Almond Garden, and then, beneath another arch, into the Cypress Garden with its one tall, perfect tree reflected in three pools. Each garden was smaller than the one before, each heartbreaking in its loveliness. The Al-Fontina, a poet once had said, had been built to break the heart." (pages 1-2 in my copy).

This is one of the first settings in a fantasy book that ever made me actually upset that I wouldn't get the chance to visit it, all the dangers of medieval fantasy worlds notwithstanding. Kay does this deliberately, of course, creating pictures of beauty- and fallen and faded beauty, no less- so that the reader is left mostly with yearning of 'what might have been.' Make no mistake; this is full-blown tragic fantasy, the swan song of a culture. One way or another, everything will change.

As should be obvious, Al-Rassan is heavily based on Al-Andalus, the kingdom of the Moors in Spain, which flourished for centuries and had light and science while the rest of the Europe was sunk in the Dark Ages. The Asharites are the analogues of the Moors, the Jaddites of the Spanish Christians who fought over hundreds of years to get their country back, and the Kindath (who worship both a sun-god and the world's two moons as goddesses) of the Jews. Religious conflict is a huge part of the stories, while at the same time Kay deliberately makes the theologies themselves seem banal, and plants questions in the reader's mind about whether it makes any difference, what heavenly light you worship.

Sometimes it's a toss-up, for me, whether the setting or the characters are more wonderful.

The Characters: Oh, all right, the characters are. I could describe all the wonderful characters, major and minor, forever, but I'll start with the three main in the order they're introduced.

First is Ammar ibn Khairan, who considers himself a poet before anything else, but gets introduced in this way: "It was just past midday, not long before the third summons to prayer, that Ammar ibn Khairan passed through the Gate of the Bells and entered the palace of Al-Fontina in Silvenes to kill the last of the khalifs of Al-Rassan" (Lions 1). Quite a beginning.

The story itself begins fifteen years later, when Ammar is the clever, witty, highly desirable right-hand man of King Almalik I, and guardian of his son- but mostly, everyone knows him as the man who killed the last khalif of Al-Rassan. Ammar allows this label to stay on him, but when his King attempts to make him take the blame for a crime he had nothing to do with, he gets a little bit upset.

I've never met a character like Ammar. Fantasy authors seem to want to make male characters incredibly macho, all the time. The sole exceptions are young mages, who almost invariably turn out to be macho as soon as they start throwing fireballs around or take up a sword. And they save the girl, too.

Ammar is intelligent without being a nerd stereotype, clever without being a smart-ass (at least most of the time), and- this is the really rare quality- perceptive without it seeming as if Kay exchanged him with someone else for those scenes. I have seen fantasy authors try to write more sensitive heroes, but they almost never do it properly. Suddenly the character's displaying insights he never could have had ten pages earlier, and making the love of his life listen to him and drink up his words like they're water. Ammar has insights that seem to rise perfectly from his own personality- he's always, always thinking, even when he's on his way to kill the khalif- and there are several scenes in the book where he sees straight to the heart of something and is able to speak about it in just the right words. Here's one (I won't reveal the surrounding context, as it would be a major spoiler):

He lifted his hands then, with some effort, and grasped her by the arms; gently, but so she could not twist away again. In the darkness he tried to see her eyes but could discern only the heart-shaped shadow of her face and the curtain of her black hair.

"Zabira," he said, an utterly unexpected kind of pain within him, "you need not punish yourself, or hold back sorrow. It is all right to mourn. It is allowed."

She went stiff with shock, as though slapped. Her body arched backwards in the first uncontrolled motion she had made all evening. For a long moment she remained that way, rigid, motionless, and then, with real grief and a simultaneous relief, Ammar heard her make one harsh, unnatural sound as if something had been torn in her throat, or her heart.
(Lions 164).

There are other things about that scene that make it even more poignant, but even from the language there, I think it's obvious how hard that scene would be to pull off without sounding mawkish, were the character any different.

The main female character is Jehane, a Kindath physician. Yes, physician. Kay does Cool Fantasy Heroines With Uncommon Jobs, at least in this book. And his research on medieval medicine is very deep and entirely convincing. When we first meet Jehane, she's sitting in a market stall recommending remedies on the basis of urine samples in flasks.

Jehane is also unusual for a fantasy heroine in that she's aware how unusual- and precarious- her position as a woman in the surrounding society is, but she doesn't turn into a doormat who only wants marriage and kiddies, or a pseudo-feminist whiner. She doesn't flinch from the difficult jobs, like amputating someone's leg on a battlefield. She's clever and quick-tempered, and Kay actually manages to convince me that she's clever and quick-tempered, instead of spewing out some declamatory sentences about it and expecting me to believe it. When she feels herself threatened, by Ammar, Rodrigo (the other main male character), or something else, she moves immediately to correct the imbalance. Ammar steals a kiss from her. She steals one back. Rodrigo taunts and teases her; Jehane uses innuendo and touches him in {in}appropriate places to get him to shut up. She also enjoys sex, and doesn't apologize for it.

That's my kind of heroine.

Jehane is probably also the character we see most at the center of the religious conflict in the story, since she's a Kindath, the minority religion despised by both of the main ones, and almost always required, in the end, to convert, move on, or die. Her choices are even more heartbreaking, given what has happened directly to her family as a result of the Asharites (avoiding spoilers again) compared with what would probably happen to her family if the Jaddites came south. She's a character who actually suffers, compared to all those pretty pretty princesses who only want to be excused from wearing gowns, and manages to rise above it.

Rodrigo Belmonte, the main Jaddite character, is arguably less complex but, in a way, more fun than the other two. He's the best fighter of Ramiro, King of Valledo, though not really in royal favor at the moment; that's what happens when you maintain publicly that the present King had something to do with the suspicious death of his brother. He's more a purely military man than Ammar is, and doesn't hesitate to call himself so. (Kay is basically blatantly thieving from the legend of El Cid). Yet, at the same time, he finds things of value in Al-Rassan. He can speak Asharic perfectly, and when he's exiled, the first place he goes is the city of Ragosa, the center of civilization and courtly beauty in Al-Rassan after the fall of Silvenes. And when he gets enraged on the behalf of Asharite civilians being tortured by Jaddite soldiers, he's probably the most terrifying character in the book.

He's also the only one of the three main characters who's married and has children, and his devotion to them is wonderful. Miranda Belmonte is his "dear wife," who kills a man trying to raid her ranch without qualms and has threatened to kill Rodrigo if he ever sleeps with another woman. His children, Fernan and Diego (possessed of the only magic in the book, a minor future-gazing ability), are precious to him, and we get to see that bond both through Rodrigo's eyes and through their own. This is another thing that's incredibly hard to pull off, and a lot of fantasy authors don't even try, just keeping their heroes single so they can marry them off to the heroines instead.

Rodrigo is an important key to the book, too, because if it were just Ammar and Jehane it would become an Ashar-and-Kindath pity-fest, at least for the first two-thirds of the story or so. However, there is civilization among the Jaddites, people who can appreciate poetry and gardens and fountains, and even want to have them in their own kingdoms; they would just like the whole country back, thank you. I'm particularly fond of Ines, the Queen of Valledo, who's devoutly Jaddite (read: Catholic) and should not, she reasons, enjoy sex as much as she does. She does anyway. (Which is fair warning, really: Do not read Kay if you are a prude. He uses sex to show characterization and to advance the plot. In Lions, a fair amount of it is fairly kinky).

Given all these wonderful people, the ending of the book is an absolute killer, though people tend to be divided in their opinions on it. Another fair warning: If you absolutely love the very last chapter of the book and would rather that the question raised there never be answered, do not read the epilogue. A lot of readers feel it spoils things.

The Plot: Really, it's hard to say much about this without dropping huge gignormous spoilers all over the place. I've said a lot about it already. As it concerns the three main characters, though, it starts with Jehane and Ammar meeting- under entirely reasonable circumstances; no coincidences here- and fleeing Fezana, the city where Jehane lives. Jehane runs smack into Rodrigo, who's come to collect the tribute that Fezana is paying to Valledo. And then... well, it's a natural clash and meld of personalities, really.

Final Analysis: I cannot praise this story enough. If you can survive Kay's literary style (which is beautiful, but his extensive use of foreshadowing does annoy people) and if you can choose how you feel about the ending, this is beauty incarnate. It's actually not my favorite of Kay's novels- that would be Lord of Emperors- but it's the one that makes me cry most, and that's its own kind of praise.



*checks*

No, didn't work. Still have too much energy.

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