It will come as no surprise that I loved today’s book, The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. We at Quill consider Kay to be one of the best authors currently in the fantasy and science-fiction scene, and when we read one of his books it is less a question of “is it good”, and more a question of “how good is it?” To immediately answer that question, the answer is: really, really, good. The Lions of Al-Rassan is a masterpiece that everyone should read and just barely loses out to Sailing to Sarantium as my favorite Kay book of all time.
Lions is ostensibly a historical fiction based on the civil wars, and eventual unification, of Spain. I think. I am not a historian, so my knowledge of this time period and the metaphors that Kay uses are not the best. Regardless, the book tells the story of a country divided by kings (lions). Kings are everywhere, popping up one after another, and each claims to be the true heir and inheritor to the land around them. On top of this, there is a panoply of warring religions in the region that are all vying for dominance in the form of religious genocide. As you might guess, these conditions make for extremely turbulent, dangerous, and fluid times where power structures and the hierarchies of nations are changing constantly. In the midst of all of this, our story follows four “advisors” to various kings and gives a poetic dissertation on loyalty and the difficulties of being a good person, and doing the right thing, in nebulous times.
Our leads are Jehane, Ammar, Rodrigo, and Alivar – four brilliant and talented individuals that shine brighter than stars on a moonless night. If I were to pick a true “protagonist” it would have to be Jehane. She is a doctor, and one of the best in all the land. Through her work as a neutral healer, she finds herself welcome in almost every court and land and is constantly in demand from the multitude of kings in contention. Next, we have Ammar – warrior, poet, and tactician. Ammar is possibly the greatest mind of an age and second to the most powerful king (currently) in Al-Rassan. However, he has had to do many terrible things for his lieges and is finding it harder to be true to himself. Then we have Rodrigo, Ammar’s counterpart in a rival faction. Rodrigo is a charismatic leader, beloved by his men, and possibly the single best fighter in the entire country. He and his band of 150 horsemen of Jad struggle with being true to their kingdom, and its zealous religious faith, while internally struggling with some of the doctrines and beliefs of their land. Finally, we have Alivar – one of Rodrigo’s aforementioned 150 horsemen – who is young, naive, and trying to make his way in the world. Through Alivar’s eyes we witness a young man who has a talent for war, but a mind that desires peace.
The characters in Lions are frankly phenomenal. I deeply love every single one and Kay shattered my heart at least five times over the course of the book. The story is just beautiful and feels like it speaks to good people trying to be good in situations where there are no good options. I found Lions asking me to think about smart questions I had never considered before, such as “what do we owe our children?”, and found it to be a very thought-provoking and contemplative book. It helped me grow a little as a person, which is, in my opinion, the single greatest trait a book can have. It also did this while showing me a positively fabulous time. On top of the characters being genuine joys to be around, the book is funny and fun when it is not being sad. The dialogue is witty, and the situations characters find themselves in can be hilarious and heartwarming. To top it all off, the book is a standalone and ends with an incredible climax that feels both thematically satisfying and gripping to read.
There is absolutely nothing imperfect about The Lions of Al-Rassan. The pages of this thoughtful story are poetry for the heart and this book would easily place in my top 100 of all time. The characters are eternally memorable, the prose is top-in-class, and the story is engrossing from beginning to end. The Lions of Al-Rassan is a masterpiece of fiction and a book that should be on every person’s must-read list.
Rating: The Lions of Al-Rassan – 10/10