“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.