Terence's Reviews > The Lions of Al-Rassan

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
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Mar 07, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: sf-fantasy
Recommended to Terence by: GR Friends too numerous to name

Perhaps it’s incipient dementia?

I’ve lost too many brain cells to time and American TV but I just don’t get the GGK “love” evinced by many of my GR friends. I struggled through the first 100 pages of this book and seriously considered giving up entirely but I persevered to the end (albeit skimming through many pages) and left profoundly unimpressed.

Upon reflection, my difficulty with the novel is that at no point did the writing engage me. I didn’t find the alternate Medieval Spain all that inventive; I didn’t find the characters all that interesting. The story had moments of interest but overall I felt cynically manipulated at every point.

Points that made it impossible to enjoy this book:

The setting: Medieval history – particularly the very era when the Reconquista was getting underway – was my focus in college and in my post-graduate studies. Kay has done his homework but rather than using that knowledge to inform a true alternate history of Spain or a world with a Moorish flavor we have a world where the names have been changed…and that’s it. We have “al-Rassan” for “al-Andalus,” “Esperaña” for “Spain,” the “Majriti” for “Berbers,” “Jaddites” for “Christians,” “Asharites” for “Muslims,” … you get the idea.

The characters: Two points to make here. One is that our heroes and heroines are simply too good to be believed – Rodrigo, Ammar, Jehane, Miranda. They’re brilliant, understanding and “oh, so tragic.” And the bad guys are little better. A shade more gray (e.g., Almalik ibn Almalik or Yazir ibn Q’arif) but not much. I felt like I was being hit over the head with their awesomeness as well as with their angst over the terrible dilemmas they found themselves in. The in-your-face nature of the writing made it impossible for me to get into the story or to give a damn about the characters.

Point two is that Rodrigo et al. sound and act like 20/21st century people. There was never a moment when I felt I was in the mind of a man or woman born and raised in a Medieval (or Medievalish) world unlike my reading of Sheri Holman’s A Stolen Tongue. There, I could identify with or at any rate understand Fra Felix’s motivations and actions but they were wholly informed by Medieval premises, and I was in a thoroughly alien world. The same is true of William Golding’s Scorpion God, where we’re transported to a Stone Age tribe, Old Kingdom Egypt and late Republican Rome.

The sex scenes: Like a lot of the book, they were just too good to be true and cringe inducing.

The technology: This really only irked me in two places as, otherwise, there was nothing obviously anachronistic, and both had to do with the medical technology of the period. Jehane’s father – Ishak, a celebrated physician – performs a successful Caesarian section and a successful brain surgery. Though Muslim and Jewish (i.e., Asharite and Kindath) medical knowledge was – relatively speaking – light years beyond any Christian (i.e., Jaddite) lore, I just couldn’t buy it.

And on that topic and related to the unbelievable awesomeness of the characters – there was a scene where Kay could have introduced an element of humanity into Jehane’s character. One of the more vile villains – Garcia de Rada – suffers a whip lash. Jehane, much against her inclination, offers him advice on how to make sure it doesn’t fester because her Oath of Galinus (otherwise known as the Hippocratic Oath) demands that she offers succor to anyone. Why couldn’t we have seen a flaw in her character? A point where even her oath isn’t going to make her let Garcia suffer less? Rather than making me dislike her it would have made her more real.

Whew…is there anything good I can say about the book? I did give it two stars, after all.

Not really. I may become more generous as the immediacy of my reading lessens but the novel is just “okay” in my book. I wish I could share in the enthusiasm of many of my GR friends (and I’ll still take their ratings, recommendations and reviews seriously) but I can’t.

I don’t know if I want to give Kay another chance. I’m still intrigued by the idea behind Tigana, for example, but I’m not sure I could endure the writing style again.

I think I’m going to go off now and write a review of a book I that’s more than “OK.”
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Reading Progress

March 7, 2011 – Shelved
June 21, 2011 – Started Reading
June 22, 2011 – Shelved as: sf-fantasy
June 25, 2011 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-33 of 33) (33 new)

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Kelly Mwahahaha, yes!


Kelly Elizabeth wrote: "Have you finally decided this is the one to try?"

I think we peer pressured him. (Not that I regret this. :))


message 3: by Kelly (last edited Mar 07, 2011 01:49PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly description


Kelly :) I found it amusing.

(... sorry for taking over your not-even-review-yet, Terrence!)


Terence Jon had a spare copy so I took advantage of Bookswap but I still have 1,000+ pages of Malazan goodness to get through before even considering reading this :-)


Kelly I bought the first Malazan book to read on spring break. STOKED.


Kelly YESSSSSS. Elizabeth, where are you?? Our peer pressure is coming to fruition!! :)


Kelly But what if he doesn't like Kay and we've been wrong about him all this time, Kelly?

We obviously burn him in effigy and curse his soul to the underworld- I mean, what Elizabeth said, Terence! No pressure! :)


Terence Kelly wrote: "But what if he doesn't like Kay and we've been wrong about him all this time, Kelly?

We obviously burn him in effigy and curse his soul to the underworld- I mean, what Elizabeth said, Terence! No ..."


Uh, oh...I may have to start picking out drapes for my underworld apartment cuz I'm not feeling the GGK love yet.

Granted, I'm only on page 100 (the beginning of part 2 in my edition) so it may get better. But the writing so far is leaving me cold and uninvolved. The story's decent enough so I'm not going to throw it down in disgust as I did with Empress but it's not very involving so far either.

It better get better soon or I'm going to cancel my GR membership (in a huff) and devote the rest of my life to first-person shooter videogames :-)


message 10: by Kelly (last edited Jun 22, 2011 09:46AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly Granted, I'm only on page 100 (the beginning of part 2 in my edition) so it may get better. But the writing so far is leaving me cold and uninvolved.

Okay, is this just to get back at me for hating on Erikson?? :)

No but seriously at the beginning I think GGK is going for a legendary feel and setting up his characters. I certainly got much more involved with them as time went on and the inevitable place things were going got closer and closer and people had to start choosing sides. I hope you like it better as things go on!


Terence Kelly wrote: "Granted, I'm only on page 100 (the beginning of part 2 in my edition) so it may get better. But the writing so far is leaving me cold and uninvolved.

Okay, is this just to get back at me for hatin..."


Okay, I'll refrain from investing in a Nintendo Wii just yet :-)


Kelly Okay, I'll refrain from investing in a Nintendo Wii just yet :-)

I mean, I think Wii is more for playing golf and fake fencing rather than first-person shooter anyway so you'd be totally robbed of your life of virtual crime anyway. :)

But I am glad to hear you aren't giving up!


message 13: by Kelly (last edited Jun 22, 2011 10:05AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly Oops, x-posted with Elizabeth. I just looked it up- page 100 is (view spoiler)

Kay's voice is quite distinctive, so Elizabeth might be right about you not liking it if you don't yet, but maybe! I've been converted by the ends of books before, and things have yet to really get going. Also, I think that things get less distant pretty fast.


message 14: by Jon (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jon Terence wrote: "Jon had a spare copy so I took advantage of Bookswap but I still have 1,000+ pages of Malazan goodness to get through before even considering reading this :-)"

You're gonna love this Terrence!


message 15: by Hazel (last edited Jun 26, 2011 12:35PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hazel Looking at my review, Trevor, it seems I found the heroism quite seductive. I got tearful near the end too. :-)

Thank you. I'm going to look for Sheri Holman and William Goldman.

Oh, it's Golding.


message 16: by Chris (new)

Chris I've tried to read two Kay books. Note the word tried.


message 17: by Kelly (last edited Jun 27, 2011 01:03PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly Eek. I feel like I should apologize. Sorry you didn't experience the Kay love. I agree with Elizabeth that it is a particular style of writing that either gets to you or not- I personally love the lyrical, legendary feel of it. It works for me, and is able to lull me into the setting. It sounds like your scholarly knowledge of this particular area/period meant your academic brain won. Isn't that so often the case, though? When you know so much about something or someone, its hard to accept tales instead of facts, even if the book isn't supposed to be factual. I hate that sometimes- its been happening to me more since grad school started.

I also agree with Elizabeth (... that seems to happen a lot with Kay :)) about the archetypes thing. But I would also like to suggest that while these characters are heroic, tragic, and perfect in a lot of respects... I don't think they're quite so much so perfect as you say. Jehane, just to use your example. Although in Garcia de Rada's case she is able to resist her anger/less than noble motivations, there are plenty of times when she can't. She rants bitterly several times at the Jaddite soldiers about their faith's attitude towards the Kindath- and resists becoming Rodrigo's company physician because of it for awhile. She's cruel about it even after he's proved to her he and his soldiers are decent guys. She's extremely prickly with Mazur ben Avren (which is kind of unfair to him because he doesn't do anything particularly wrong- just touches a personal nerve with her), she sleeps with Alvar even though she's not in love with him, she doesn't do anything about killing Almalik after making her melodramatic declaration on the Day of the Moat (mostly to impress Ammar and her father), and we see inside her head about how unsure/terrified she is when she attempts a medical procedure she's never tried before. She's not a perfect automaton. The others have their moments too: Rodrigo doesn't appear particularly 21st century when he professes to believe in holy war and sees it as his duty to carve out as big a piece of power for his children as possible (his children's ultimate actions and fate don't seem particularly advanced either). Ammar is just flat wrong, several times, and he is bitter and mean to Rodrigo towards the end. (Though I admit that he's basically the incarnation of a lament for al-Andalus so he's the closest thing to perfect we get.) Also, there's the Belmonte family priest and the choice he makes to stand by his faith- that's not black and white. Alvar is melodramatic and young and silly and he knows it. Also, I always thought Miranda's biggest personality trait (until the very end anyway) was that she was extremely jealous- not particularly attractive.

I think Kay meant to show us the real people behind the legend, while letting the legend play out at the same time. I think you might be right that he sometimes leans too heavily towards the legend. He's definitely in love with the stories, and wants so so much for us to be too. I can see how some people would think he's overdoing it. But I think at least in this particular book his characters deserve the kind of prose he gives them. The scene between Rodrigo and Ammar at the end where they just CAN'T budge from their final positions breaks my heart every time.

I should admit that read this for the first time when I was about thirteen though- maybe it just got under my skin young. But I haven't changed my mind about it like I have others I read in my early teens.

Anyway, sorry, this got long. Obviously I respect your opinion and I'm sorry to have helped lead you astray! :(


Terence @Kelly: "Anyway, sorry, this got long. Obviously I respect your opinion and I'm sorry to have helped lead you astray! :("

No harm, no foul.

@Elizabeth: "Alas, we're still going to have to burn you in effigy."

Take pictures. You can send them to my e-mail in my profile :-)

@Hazel: Thanks for catching my autorial slip. I'll fix it.

@Elizabeth x2: "I've wondered, how is it possible that these hero tales could be about 'real' people and I think Kay kind of shows us how it might be possible."

I think I know what you're talking about here. I'm predisposed to like tales that involve "real" people caught up in epic events. I think you're right that a lot of my dissatisfaction comes from style. I just did not enjoy reading the book.

Another thing that just struck me while formulating my reply is that Kay appears to want both the "legend" and the "reality" of his characters to be true, and I don't think that's possible.

@Kelly x2: Very nice defense of (at least) Jehane's flaws.

And you're right to point out Rodrigo's and Ibero's actions. Those were some of the more interesting parts of the book. In Ibero's case, though, I'm told he writes a letter but I never see the mental struggle he (allegedly) goes through.

And I loved Rodrigo's answer to Jehane's question (paraphrasing): "I do what I do because I want to be powerful enough to protect my family." That's a believable motivation. (But then Kay spoils it - for me - by making the entire Belmonte clan so awesome I never felt they were ever seriously threatened by their enemies.)

This brings up another point of dissatisfaction (which I was unconscious of to now): (view spoiler)


message 19: by Kelly (last edited Jun 28, 2011 10:22AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly I see your points (though I think we DO see Ibero's motivation- and its implied that he's known he really should have told the secret awhile ago but didn't out of family loyalty. The charged atmosphere of holy war changed things and I think he says as much when Miranda confronts him). I think you're basically right about the way the Belmonte clan was pictured, and you're probably right that (view spoiler)

I just did not enjoy reading the book.

It sounds like this was the real problem though, as you say. Hard to overcome this no matter what plot points I could argue with you about. Oh well. :(


message 20: by Kelly (last edited Jun 28, 2011 10:32AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kelly He wasn't writing Russian tragedy, Terence!

His sort of tragedies don't usually need a Hamlet-sized body count, it's true. :) One or two is usually more than enough to drive the story, even if larger sacrifices are in the background (Tigana and Song for Arbonne are both this way.) Though, if you wanted one, (view spoiler)


Terence Elizabeth wrote: "Terence wrote: "This brings up another point of dissatisfaction (which I was unconscious of to now): (view spoiler) "

He wasn't writing Russian tragedy, Terence!


But I take your point. :-)"


You're right! I'm reading too much Russian tragedy! I just can't believe it anymore unless the characters are mired in hopeless ennui and apathy! ;-)


Terry You pretty much summed up all of my complaints about Kay's writing. I used to love him, but then I grew up and all of his tics just became unbearable.


message 23: by Jean-marcel (new)

Jean-marcel In my view, kay is pretty crap. I've always had a bit of trouble articulating my reasons for thinking this, but you've hit on some of them, i think. he is pretty manipulative with his characters, and never quite makes you feel like you're in the place he wants you to be in. his "Sarantium" quartet or whatever it's called had the same sort of slightly haphazard adaptation of real history with altered names so that he could theoretically get away with whatever he wanted. Fionavar is much more of a Tolkien homage than he would like you to believe, and some of his books feel a bit like grandiose, medieval-styled soap operas.


message 24: by Simon (new)

Simon Damn. From what I've read about Kay he seems more along my tastes than most other fantasy authors active today, so that comment of your makes me very cautious JM.


Terence Simon wrote: "Damn. From what I've read about Kay he seems more along my tastes than most other fantasy authors active today, so that comment of your makes me very cautious JM."

As these things are subjective, your only recourse is to pick up a Kay novel and have at it :-)

Kay fans among my GR friends usually rave about Tigana, so you might start there.


Daniel Roy This review just proved to me that I'm not insane in finding this book highly meh-worthy. You've articulated all the problems I had with it, and more eloquently than I could.


Terence Daniel wrote: "This review just proved to me that I'm not insane in finding this book highly meh-worthy. You've articulated all the problems I had with it, and more eloquently than I could."

Thanks. Always glad to be of service.


Terry Ben wrote: "You prefer the Malazan books to Guy Kay. I can only assume that you are a 12 year old boy!"

Given the nature of this comment I'd say you're more likely to be one actually!


Terry Ben wrote: "Oh get over yourself. Why is everyone on this website so sickly sweet."

Trust me Ben, I am not sweet at all. You're the one getting your knickers in a knot because someone doesn't love your favourite author.

If you don't like the review that's fine. If you disagree and have something useful to say please do, this is a discussion site after all, but the real pox on this site are people like you who feel the need to vindicate their preferences by name-calling others who disagree with their preferences.

Now please go to the corner and take a time-out until you can play well with others.


Terry Ben wrote: "My that was an authorative response, sweetie! Are you policing goodreads in an official capacity or have you taken it upon yourself. I could argue that your response to my post is the same as my re..."

Well said Ben, glad to see you can use your big-boy words! Are you policing goodreads to ensure everyone has the 'correct' evaluation of GGK's work? If so, please make sure you actually engage in a discussion about it instead of puerile name-calling, that's really the gist of my comment.

If you could send me along your list of objective aesthetic rules for good writing to which GGK adheres in his wine-like purity of prose that'd be great too...cheers!


message 31: by Eric (new) - added it

Eric Ben, why do you have to being Malazan into this? It certainly is not for 12 year olds. And why be snooty and disrespectful?


Terry Tim wrote: "Terry wrote: "You pretty much summed up all of my complaints about Kay's writing. I used to love him, but then I grew up and all of his tics just became unbearable."
Terry, this statement is clearl..."


I guess I'm a hypocrite Tim...or maybe I'm right! ;)


message 33: by Brad (new) - added it

Brad Kirk I would at least try Tigana if you haven't already. I thought that book was amazing. While I have quite enjoyed the other GGK books I've read (Children of Earth and Sky, A Song for Arbonne, and the Fionavar Trilogy), none of them are on the same level as Tigana. Although A Song for Arbonne was a near-ish second.


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