Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay


“The deeds of men, as footprints in the desert. Nothing under the circling moons is fated to last. Even the sun goes down.” 
  
There are fantasy authors and then there is Guy Gavriel Kay who is in a league of his own. Not only does he deserve to be recognized as one of most talented writers of the genre but should also be regarded as one of Canada's finest writers. I mentioned this fact in my review of his other novel Tigana but it is worth reiterating once again. He often gets overlooked because his works are not taken seriously in contrast to his contemporaries such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje or even more recent authors such as Joseph Boyden who tend to deal with "big issues" that reflect Canadian identity. Kay's novels may not be rooted in Canadian culture but they certainly cover a wide range of contentious issues such as religion (a major theme in The Lions of Al-Rassan), class, colonialism, gender, hegemony, power struggles, etc, so to simply say he only writes "entertaining fiction" would be a grave error in judgment. In fact, it is difficult to classify many of his novels, especially Lions, as a fantasy novel in the traditional sense because Kay is unorthodox in his methods, often playing around with genre conventions. It might be more accurate to label this particular work as some kind of hybrid of fantasy/historical fiction instead. 

The particular story is influenced by the history of Moorish Spain where Muslims, Jews and Christians were engaged in civil war. There are no fire breathing dragons, elves, dwarves, wizards or magic of any kind to be found here--only a beautifully written epic story about talented individuals who are forced to do extraordinary things because they live in a world on the verge of collapse and pure anarchy. Conflicting loyalties and religious ideologies create a a rift between friendships, family and love; the brutality of war dividing a nation into various factions, innocent blood spilled in the name of divine providence. While there are fight sequences and epic battle scenes, Kay doesn't indulge in grand gestures; rather, there is a poetic lyricism to the way he presents violence--much of the intense action occurring on the peripheral, a latent narrative strategy that effectively heightens the suspense leading up to those pivotal moments. The final confrontation between the two main characters who have been good friends up until this point and have now become leaders of opposing sides is handled with such precision, grace and unwavering intensity. The reader does not either of them to die in battle but of course, it is inevitable that only one shall triumph. For those who don't read a lot of fantasy or tend to avoid it on general principle, Guy Gavriel Kay is an author worth checking out who might just change your mind about the genre. As a master story-teller, his unique vision, memorable characters and sublime writing deserves nothing but the highest praise.

I only reserve 5-star ratings for masterful literary works that prove to be extra special in some way: The Lions of Al-Rassan easily falls into that select group (that now makes two 5-stars ratings for Mr. Kay so far, well done sir). In addition to containing everything that I look for in a novel--an absorbing story that is a pure joy to read with superb writing, well-drawn characters, having a breadth of ideas, possessing narrative cohesion that all leads up to a satisfactory climax--it is the emotional intensity and the achingly beautiful ending that really stand out. Kay's ability to create such sympathetic characters with depth and complexity is truly remarkable. They are never one dimensional and feel so real, coming to life right there on the page. Flawed, contradictory and perhaps not always acting with the most ethical conduct (heck, one of the main characters is an assassin), they uphold a sense of moral duty; even willing to die for for their beliefs, which makes them wholly unique individuals. Sorry if this sounds corny or cliche but I really cared passionately for these characters and on some level even grew to love them. I never expected to get so emotionally attached but as the story progressed towards its conclusion, I found myself completely entangled up in their lives and dreading what might become of their fate--the experience was almost unbearable. Kay surely knows how to pull on those heart-strings. This brings me to the climax of the novel, which hit me like a ton of bricks. Other than Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, I don't ever recall being so profoundly moved by an ending. No, I didn't bawl my eyes out or anything that dramatic but I do admit to feeling a lump in my throat, choked up by the sheer beauty and magnitude of those final closing moments. An absolutely breathtaking and unforgettable novel.

On a final note, I  had the privilege of actually meeting Guy Gavriel Kay when he was doing a book signing here in Toronto last year. My first meet and greet with an author too. I don't get out much but this was an exception. The place even had live music and free food. Score! Mr. Kay was a very affable gentleman and we spoke briefly. Of course, I was completely awe-struck in his presence, sweating profusely, nervous as hell and tongue-tied the whole time during our brief conversation. Somehow I managed to tell him through all my stuttering that I loved his work and that they were sources of comfort during a recent rough period in my life. He was very humble, thanking me for being so honest and upfront with him. I then proceeded to ask whether or not he had ever been approached by Hollywood to adapt one of his novels but he wouldn't give me a direct answer. He played it coy, saying something along the lines of "Oh, I don't know..." and then gave me a wry smile before signing two of my books--one of which was The Lions of Al-Rassan (I can die happy now), the other being The Song of Arbonne. I would have liked him to have sign Tigana as well but there were others waiting in line and having nearly soiled myself in excitement, I needed to find a restroom quick time. It was such an honor to meet Guy Gavriel Kay and if he happens to be in town again for another one these book signing events or press tours, I'll be sure to attend and try acting less like a gushing fan-boy.




 This novel also counts towards my Canadian Reading Project.

11 comments:

  1. If you are willing to include this author and title in the same sentence with Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, I am persuaded to abandon my aversion to fantasy fiction and read Kay's book. Yes, the jury of one is in: I am going to find and read Kay.

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  2. Actually, it was "To the Lighthouse" but now that you mention it, I could have also used Mrs. Dalloway as another novel that affected me on a deep level. You've made me so happy right now RTD. Guy Gavriel Kay deserves a much wider readership and I hope you end up becoming a fan. I would highly recommend starting with Lions of Al-Rassan or if you are feeling a little more daring, Tigana. I wish you all the best on your journey into the wonderful world of GGK and hope to see you on the other side. :)

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    1. Jason, I do not know why I made the Woolf slip. Perhaps my own mind wanted to substitute my preferred Woolf title. In any case, I will BOLO for GGK titles, so thanks for the Rx.

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  3. I just walked by a GGK book of novels about 5 hours ago at a store here. I should have stopped, I know (have I dropped in your estimation?), but I'm so used to getting great books for free at the recycle depot here, that I mentally tagged that I didn't want to pay for it so ......... I can't even tell you the novels it included. How wretched ........ And I'm leaving at 6 am tomorrow, so I can't go back. Look at that! Now I've depressed myself and I haven't even read the guy yet! ;-)

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    1. Nice pun on his name, hehe. You can't go wrong with free books. I really wish they had a recycle depot like that around here. Awww...don't beat yourself up about not blind-buying. I've done that so many times and got burned in the end. Besides, there's no guarantee that you will even like his work (he is Canadian after all haha) so why not test out the waters first by heading on down to your local library. :)

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  4. The Moorish Spain setting and the "playing around with genre conventions" reminds me of Rushdie, but I don't know if the similarities end there. Meeting an author I admire is something I have yet to experience but I can imagine a lot of stammering and swooning. You must love that signed copy!

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    1. Hmmm...perhaps there is a connection between the two authors as you suggest but I would argue that Rushie dabbles more in magical realism whereas Kay creates a hybrid between fantasy/historical fiction. However, I can see what you are getting at here because even something like "The Enchantress of Florence" does have fantasy elements mixed in with historical fiction. I'd have to read more Rushdie though before making any more conclusions.

      Indeed, it was a quite a thrill to meet him and receiving a signed copy of Lions was the icing on the cake. I contemplated buying one of those small glass cases to put it in but that seemed a bit extreme. I would still like to read it again and it's nice to be able to pick it up now and again to hold in my hands. Now, if I happened to come into possession of a 1st edition of "To the Lighthouse" that would be a different story.

      I'm not sure where you live but hopefully you get a chance to attend one of these book signings or meet some of your favorite authors one day. I never realized how many reading events there are in this city and I should really start going to them. I wouldn't have even known of the GGK book signing had it not been for a very nice librarian (I also happened to have a serious crush on her) who told me about it when she noticed that I was checking out a pile of GGK books. Pure coincidence. Or maybe it was just meant to be...

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  5. What a great story about meeting a favorite author! I have heard a lot about this author but I haven't read any of his books yet. Which book should I start with?

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    1. Glad I could spark your interest to read some GGK, Lindsey! He has such an extensive output of work and its difficult to choose which one to start with but I would have to say that "Lions of Al-Rassan" would be a safe bet because it easy enough to get into and gives you a really good sense of his style of writing. I am hesitant to recommend Tigana to newcomers because the novel is 700 pages long but the story is so enrapturing that it surely doesn't feel like it. If for some reason you cannot acquire "Lions" then try "A Song for Arbonne" which is influenced by the history of medieval France. Pretty cool. I also find that it has a very similar tone and lyrical quality to Lions as well.

      Happy reading! :)

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  6. Do you know about www.brightweavings.com which is the GGK website? Lots of excellent information and advice on that. Guy Kay's early Fionavar Tapestry books are more traditional fantasy novels - and none the worse for that - but Tigana is very special and from then on I think his books have just got better and better and deeper and wiser and more compelling. Lions has always been a favourite of mine. As you say Jason C, Guy makes the reader part of the world of his characters and we love, laugh and suffer with them. Thrilling to know you are introducing him to new readers.

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  7. Hello Anthea! I'm glad to meet another GGK fan. *high-five!*

    Yes, I have visited his website on more than one occasion but haven't browsed around it very much. I should really change that.

    Indeed, you are correct -- those looking for more "traditional' fantasy novels in a similar vein to Tolkien's LOTR's should seek out "The Fionavar Trilogy." Having read the these during my youth, I look back on them with fond nostalgia and it would be interesting to see how they would hold up if I were to ever read them again. Although some of his more recent novels failed to register with me (Ysabel and The Last Light of the Sun come to mind), he has developed so much as a writer since the early Fionavar days. Some might argue that he will never again reach the heights of his middle-career during the 1990's to early 2000 when he turned out masterworks like Tigana, Lions, Arbonne, even the underrated Sarantine Mosaic, but I don't think he is past his prime just yet. Under Heaven was excellent and showed a returned to form. I haven't read River of Stars though. How do you find some of his more recent works?

    I'm trying my best to encourage others to read his work but there's only so much that I can do in this situation. As long as I can convince one person to read any of his novels, I'll be satisfied. Thanks for dropping by and if you ever want to discuss GGK again, you know where to find me. :)

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