Monday, July 9, 2012

The Lions of Al-Rassan

"Over the centuries, the once stern rulers of Al-Rassan have been seduced by sensuous pleasures. Now King Almalik of Cartada is on the ascendancy, adding city after city to his realm, aided by his friend and advisor, the notorious Ammar ibn Khairan--poet, diplomat, soldier--until a summer day of savage brutality changes their relationship forever. Meanwhile, in the north, the Jaddite's most celebrated--and feared--military leader, Rodrigo Belmonte, and Ammar meet. Sharing the interwoven fate of both men is Jehane, the beautiful, accomplished court physician, whose own skills play an increasing role as Al-Rassan is swept to the brink of holy war, and beyond...."

So this was, how can I put this...great. Love. So glad I read this one.

First off, what I didn't like: The sex. It was mostly gratuitous. I'm not a prude when it comes to some literary coitus, but I only appreciate it when it is useful to the plot/character development/atmosphere. When sex is just thrown in there to titillate and fill some space (and in this case, possibly to gross the reader out?), I'm just not into it. And oddly, this is a work in which some sex is useful. It's about the fall of a very decadent empire, and the pleasures of the flesh are part of that empire. However, enough is enough. This was just a bit too graphic in most cases, and at that point it only detracted from Gavriel Kay's otherwise beautiful prose.

Other than that? Rock it, GGK, rock it. We all know I love me a strong female protagonist, and Jehane was definitely that. She had strength, depth, and (holy moly, can you believe it?) confidence! OMG!  A woman with confidence who doesn't spend any amount of time in front of a mirror wondering if she is pretty enough! Can I get an AMEN, sistas? Also, she's a doctor.  So, boom. Oh, and none of her worth was invested in her hymen, so that was a refreshing departure from the norm. As per usual with an epic novel, the cast was large. Other than Jehane, it was also entirely male. So that was odd, but sort of fun. Jehane's interactions with her all male costars were part of the novelty of her character. She got to be strong and intelligent and witty, and she neither submitted to her male leads nor spent the entire book competing with them. Refreshing indeed.

The novel parlays with religion and love, and treats both with fascinating nuance. Given that it's roughly based on the time leading up to the Reconquista in medieval Spain, Kay built his three religions to be roughly representative of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The beliefs of each as represented in the novel don't map well onto any of the three, and that isn't his intention here. His point is the interplay between three very similar and yet ultimately opposed methods of explaining the world. There is racial violence (the Kindaths, or Jews, get the worst of it) and there is tolerance and exchange, particularly among the three main characters who each come from one of the three religions. Kay gives you reasons to love and hate all three religions (though the Kindath's get a kinder portrait than the other two). But his purpose is not to convert you to any religion, but to get us look at the ways they interact, their power and their limitations.

More than the interplay of religion, however, I truly enjoyed Kay's treatment of Love. The long lasting love of an old married couple. Fidelity despite cultural expectations to the contrary. Short lived but bright flames of love. Love despite infidelity, or perhaps without any reference to sexual fidelity at all. And most of all, the question: Is it possible to be deeply in love with two people at once? I'm coming down on the side of no, and of course Jehane eventually has to choose one as well. But still, it's interesting. There are lots of interesting love plots in this novel, and none of them are the sappy fare that make you give the sour-grape face when you have to read past them. Also, and this is strange, most of the explicit sex is not related to any sort of love at all. Maybe that's why I felt it was so gratuitous? I don't know.

But more, even, than the treatment of religion and the exploration of love, I really, truly swam in the atmosphere Kay created here. Somehow he made me love Al-Rassan. I wept for it's fall. He gave the whole a sense of poetry and grace, so that even though you recognize it as a decaying corpse of an empire, you still long for it to rebuild itself. It made me want to read some Arabic/Spanish poetry and immediately buy tickets for Grenada. (Screw Iceland, our next vacation is going to be Spain).

War rears it's ugly head in this novel as well, but thankfully Kay allows it to remain ugly. Along side the courage and daring of the heroes, there is loss and pain and horror. None is immune from it. It is not forgiven or forgotten. Again, it was a bit more graphic here than I generally enjoy. I'm trying to excuse it all on the basis of a novel that treats so well with the desires, powers, and frailties of the flesh. But still. Ew. Worth the read, though. Oh, very worth the read.

Rating: Four lions by fountain.

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