The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

February 12, 2014
The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel KayThe Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
Also by this author: Tigana
Published by HarperCollins on 2012-06-19
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 528
Source: Purchased

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The ruling Asharites of Al-Rassan have come from the desert sands, but over centuries, seduced by the sensuous pleasures of their new land, their stern piety has eroded. The Asharite empire has splintered into decadent city-states led by warring petty kings. King Almalik of Cartada is on the ascendancy, aided always by his friend and advisor, the notorious Ammar ibn Khairan -- poet, diplomat, soldier -- until a summer afternoon of savage brutality changes their relationship forever.Meanwhile, in the north, the conquered Jaddites' most celebrated -- and feared -- military leader, Rodrigo Belmonte, driven into exile, leads his mercenary company south.In the dangerous lands of Al-Rassan, these two men from different worlds meet and serve -- for a time -- the same master. Sharing their interwoven fate -- and increasingly torn by her feelings -- is Jehane, the accomplished court physician, whose own skills play an increasing role as Al-Rassan is swept to the brink of holy war, and beyond.Hauntingly evocative of medieval Spain, The Lions of Al-Rassan is both a brilliant adventure and a deeply compelling story of love, divided loyalties, and what happens to men and women when hardening beliefs begin to remake -- or destroy -- a world.


Guy Gavriel Kay has been on my “must try” list for years. I have heard him recommended so many times and I have come across devoted fans that will praise his prose endlessly. And on top of that, he writes stand-alone novels, so there is no fear of commitment here. With all of that, I have no idea why I have not read one of his novels previously. But, I nominated The Lions of Al-Rassan for one of my book club reads and happily it won. No more excuses, it was time to actually read.

So, now that I have read it, do I think it is worthy of the praise I have heard? Absolutely. Kay’s prose is just wonderful to read. Lions of Al-Rassan is a historical fantasy with very little magic. Similar to K. J. Parker’s work, this one is a fictional world that mirrors ours. But the strengths of this book are different than Parker. Kay’s prose has a more fluid feel, while Parker has more mystery/layers. I don’t think one is better than the other; they just have a little bit different feel reading them, even though in some ways they are similar.

One of the first things I took note about this book is that it is brutal. At least there is a very brutal scene in the beginning. I was surprised just because I have never heard that mentioned of Kay’s books before. And reading on, I don’t know if it is indicative of all his books, but for this one, it made so much sense for him to capture atrocities of war and present them to the reader for this particular book. Because when it’s all said and read, this book is about war. It’s about intolerance, differences in religions and cultures and how people stereotype and treat each other. It is also about how people don’t need to be evil to be driven to carry out what would otherwise be evil deeds. It’s all in the name of war or religion. Or both. It would be hard to really drive home the brutality of war without showing it. There is a shock value there that just can’t be accomplished otherwise. And I’m not saying that Kay is very graphic, he’s not. It’s just the events themselves that are harsh.

A real strength of this book is that each of the three protagonists represents a different culture. It is much harder to pick a side to root for or against when you see each side humanized instead of stereotyped. And by some fate, they have wound up traveling together and have to face divided loyalties. I love books that make characters reflect on choices and loyalties. I love when the other side is shown as actual people with their own reasons and motivations instead of just being “good guys” vs. “bad guys”. Because lets face it, in reality, every side thinks of themselves as the good guys.

Another strength of this book is the women characters. Jehane is one of our three main protagonists and is by all means a strong female character. She is not a fighter, she is a doctor so I don’t mean strong as in physically strong (I never do when I say that, I think a female character can be portrayed as physically strong, but still be weak). The only point I came even close to having a complaint about in this book was I felt like everyone was falling in love with Jehane. But that is not a real complaint, it really didn’t bother me, and I guess she was a remarkable woman. In addition to Jehane, there were a couple of secondary women characters that were also strong and fun to read.

Something else I enjoy in this book is the way Kay will allude to events being one way, causing the reader to make assumptions, only to turn the tables and reveal something else. As a reader, you then have evaluate and realize how easily you can come to false conclusions. Even after you catch on, it’s still fun because it makes the book less predictable.

And as for the ending of this book, I absolutely love the way it was done. I don’t want to say more because I want to keep this spoiler free, but fantastic ending. Kay’s prose, story telling, world building and characters are all just beautifully done.I highly recommend this book to anyone, and I look forward to reading my next book by Kay.



  • Mogsy February 12, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    One of my good friends in college first recommended this to me, describing it as “a fantasy retelling of the Reconquista condensed into a decade or so” and pushed this book into my hands and forced me to read it. Anyway, I’m so glad he did, because I became a GGK fan on the spot. Anyway, not only was it my first book by the author, I think it might also have been one of my earliest introductions to “historical fantasy”, a subgenre I honestly didn’t think I would take to, but Kay makes it so wonderful.

    • Lisa (@TenaciousReader) February 14, 2014 at 3:15 pm

      Interesting. 🙂 I think the term “historical fantasy” would not have been appealing to me if I had not already read some others and enjoyed them. I was honestly never much go a fan of history class, so it likely would have had a bit of a negative connotation for me. Now, I actually can’t help but wonder if I would enjoy history if only it had been presented in a less dull way. Anyway, this certainly won’t be my last GGK read or my last “historical fantasy”. Really looking forward to reading more.

  • Nathan (@reviewbarn) February 12, 2014 at 11:14 pm

    Kay may be the biggest named fantasy author that I have not read. Mostly I hear about his skill with language, and I also had never heard anything about dark and brutal scenes.

    The problem is everyone seems to rec a different starting point.

    • Lisa (@TenaciousReader) February 14, 2014 at 3:17 pm

      I noticed that too! It’s hard to pick when everyone says something different. What I finally heard was something to the effect: “there is no bad starting point for Kay, all of his books are excellent. Just different people have different favorites”. I look forward to seeing if that is true.