For several years now, I’ve been interested in medieval Spain, and about a quarter of my first novel takes place in tenth century Córdoba (which was part of a Moorish caliphate, back when the Iberian Peninsula was called Al-Andalus). Knowing this, it’s astounding (and a bit embarrassing) that I waited so long to read The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay, one of the more famous novels with a medieval Spanish setting. Boy was that a mistake, as you’ll see from my review after this image of the book’s cover.
Here is the blurb from the back of my paperback edition:
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 ...The Lions of Al-Rassan is every bit as epic as A Game of Thrones. Much like the fate of the Kingdoms of Westeros, the fate of the kingdoms of Al-Rassan and Esperaña are at stake in a fictional world that starkly resembles medieval Spain and the Moorish kingdoms of Al-Andalus. Like the characters of George R.R. Martin's epic series, the character's of Kay's novel are richly drawn. His heroes are Ned Stark- admirable and his villains are painted in various shades of grey, for like A Game of Thrones, the world of Al-Rassan is never black and white.
While the book contains an abundant cast of characters, three in particular drive the story, each one a member of the story world's religious faiths: the Jaddites (Christians), Asherites (Muslims), and Kindaths (Jews). The first is Rodrigo Belmonte, a Jaddite war captain modeled after the legendary Spanish hero El Cid (Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar), and many of the book’s plot lines seem based on El Cid’s historical tale. The second is Ammar ibn Khairan, a dashing Asherite poet and swordsman responsible for murdering the last khalif of Al-Rassan, which put the first of several story villains, Almalik of Cartada, on his throne. And the third, and perhaps most central character of the lot, is the Khindath physician, Jehane bet Ishak, who ends up the object of both men’s affections.
It is the epic story, however, that makes this novel so special. The book is filled with political intrigue involving the Ashertite and Jaddite kings and their cunning advisors, as well as a host of clerics, some of whom are bent on plunging the land into holy war. Kay does a great job of making the reader feel for these lands and their people, as the rising conflict between the Asherites and Jaddites threatens the friendship between Rodrigo and Ammar, and leaves Jehane with the decision of which man – and which fate – to choose. The reader faces a similar choice as it becomes clear that only one side will win this war, and that the people of the other two faiths shall pay a grave price. I can’t say that I enjoyed this novel as much as A Game of Thrones, but it’s a very close second, and unlike Martin’s epic, the story is resolved in a single, satisfying volume.