Guy Gavriel Kay has given us a true epic in a single volume in The Lions of Al-Rassan. It is a thinly veiled retelling of El Cid and the Reconquista, albeit altered and compressed (the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula did take centuries, after all).
Jehane bet Ishak is a Kindath (read: Jewish) physician living in Fezana. Fezana remains under Asharite (read: Muslim) rule but Asharites have grown weak, and Fezana pays tribute to the nearest Jaddite (read: Christian) kingdom. Alvar de Pellino is a young soldier who joins the company of the famed captain Rodrigo Belmonte (heavily based on the historical El Cid). Events early in the book will lead to Rodrigo’s exile and bring the four main characters together. Kay captures the complexity of Reconquista era Iberian politics, which could see a Jaddite mercenary fighting under an Asharite king one day and against him the next. The final major character is Ammar ibn Khairan, assassin of the last caliph and advisor to an Asharite king.
The scope is epic and the plot complex. The peninsula is fractured into numerous states on both the Jaddite and Asharite sides. Events on the peninsula do not happen in a vacuum. A Crusade called far to the east will push the Jaddite kingdoms to embark on their own invasion south. Their actions will attract the attention of the Asharites across the strait to the south. Rodrigo and Ammar are men whose actions can topple kingdoms. This is very much a Great Man book.
Kay imbues his epic tale, though, with a personal touch at the same time. We see Rodrigo and Ammar as men, not just as Great Men. And Jehane and Alvar bring a more grounded perspective to the narrative. He gets the least attention in the reviews I’ve read, but I found Alvar’s narrative arc to be the most intriguing and satisfying. Rodrigo and Ammar and Jehane know what their place in the world is and what they want it to be (not necessarily the same thing). Alvar spends the book figuring that out.
Kay is an old school left-liberal, and the influence is apparent. The main characters we are to sympathize with are cosmopolitan and tolerant, casual in their religion. Pious characters play a villainous role, wittingly or unwittingly. The Asharite rulers on the peninsula are dissolute, but this is portrayed more as a positive than a major factor in their decline. None of this is quite historical, which isn’t to say the thematic perspective Kay uses doesn’t enhance the tale.
I had many stylistic quibbles with the first Kay book I read, Children of Earth and Sky. I am happy to report that none of those quibbles apply to The Lions of Al-Rassan, which makes me wonder if Children of Earth and Sky is an outlier in the Kay oeuvre. I won’t wait four years to read my next Kay.
5 of 5 Stars.