Last week we talked about Kay’s first five books. We have seven to go, but today I’m focusing on just one. I love reading his books in order, because I love seeing his writing style develop. Because of this, I won’t choose one of his books for a reread unless I know I have a few weeks where I don’t have much going on. Once I start, I get totally sucked in and my head is half in fantasyland until I’m done. I hold The Lions of Al-Rassan a little apart from the others. If I start on a Kay cycle, I often skip it. “Is it bad?” you ask? No, quite the opposite. I said that I won’t read his books if I have anything important going on, but this one I won’t read unless I know I have two days where I can blow off everyone to sit huddled on the couch lost in my book. I am one of those people who thinks that a really good book is one that makes me cry. The Lions of Al-Rassan is the only book I’ve ever read that not only made me cry, it made me cry like my best friend had died. Full-on, sobbing, snotting, have-to-put-the-book-down-and-run-out-of-the-restaurant crying. (I was reading during a lunch break the first time.)
So, yeah, I save this one for when I am in need of a good catharsis.
Anyway, the short description of the book is that it chronicles the year leading up to a religious war in an analogue of medieval Spain. Tension is mounting between the Jaddites (based on Christians) and the Asharites (based on Muslims). Both groups tend to take out their frustrations on the Kindath (based on the Jews).
The Lions of Al-Rassan focuses on three main characters. Ammar ibn Khairan is an Asharite who has been exiled from his country, Cartada, after helping the current king gain the throne. Rodrigo Belmonte is a Jaddite cavalry captain who has been exiled from his country, Valledo, for disciplining a cousin of the king. Jehane bet Ishak is a Kindath woman and a doctor. She inadvertently stops her king from executing one of her patients, so she and her patient leave Cartada post haste. The three end up together working for King Badir, who is somewhat neutral in the upcoming conflict.
To say that a love triangle develops doesn’t even come close. Both men fall for Jehane, and she falls for both in return. Unfortunately, Rodrigo is married and very much in love with his wife. One of the things that makes him so attractive is that he is the kind of man who wouldn’t betray her, even though he has to stay away for months at a time. On top of that, Rodrigo and Ammar come to love each other as brothers. On top of that, it becomes more and more obvious that Cartada and Valledo will be at war before the year is out, and both men will be expected to return from exile to lead their respective armies. Jehane is torn between caring for both men, being afraid to trust either of them, and knowing that when war comes, her people, the Kindath, will be caught in the middle. “Whichever way the wind blows, it always rains on the Kindath”
Kay has always written strong characters, both male and female, but in this book he makes the transition from great characters to people you feel like you could know and look up to. Jehane is wonderful. She is a strong woman who has overcome huge odds to be who she is. Her father is the greatest doctor of their age, but he has been horribly mutilated by his king and feels he can’t practice anymore. She belongs to a faith that is routinely treated like crap, and she is a woman doctor. Even in a fantasy world, this is not a common thing. What makes me love her is that she never whines. We know her life is hard, but she remains proud and professional and we never once feel like she should be pitied. In a way, she taught me that if I want to get respect, I should act like a person who deserves respect. Not by copping an attitude any time you feel undervalued, but by quietly doing your job, and doing it well, as if there is no question that you would ever do otherwise.