Though the practice in Western societies died out long ago, while reading Kay it’s easy to imagine an old European city with him on a street corner, a melodious voice telling the trials and triumphs of men of old. A myth from another time, his 1995 The Lions of Al-Rassan establishes a mood that is at once empathetic yet speaks of a time more archaic. Written in warm, refined prose, the themes of history, romance, warfare, and political intrigue as lived by a range of epic characters fill the story to the brim, standing the novel as an example of historical fantasy to rival the best.
Using European history as a springboard, The Lions of Al-Rassan is at heart the tale of Spain’s reclamation of Iberia from the Moors. Never trying to disguise the fact, Kay nevertheless creates new names for the places, cultures, and religions, the map included even holding the same shape as the Mediterranean. Kay does, however, writes his own story, that of the larger-than-life Rodrigo Belmonte of the Jaddites and Ibn an Ammar of the Asharites. The two springing from myth, the eyes of Achilles and Hector can be seen dancing in the shadows. Belmonte is a supreme military strategist and Ammar a warrior-poet, and despite their individual strengths, each remains subservient to the wishes of their kings and kingdoms. Religious fervor building between the sun worshippers and the star worshippers, choices regarding honor and duty come often and hit hard for the two men as they traverse the land, doing the bidding of their lords trying to maintain honor and self-respect.
Like smaller tributaries feeding a larger river, so does Kay tell the story of Belmonte and Amman. New chapters and scenes beginning in abstract settings or with distant characters, what is introduced is slowly woven into the lives of the two, such that by the end of the novel, a swollen tide of people and events bears the story to its tragic conclusion. While some of the action and sex is certainly gratuitous, in this novel Kay is at least able to direct these scenes toward the main plotline, salvaging what was superfluous effort in Tigana. The ending, though a bit rushed, remains satisfying and will surely have more affective readers turning the last page with a heavy heart.
Having helped Christopher Tolkien edit the manuscript that would become The Silmarillion, Kay’s sense of style hearkens back. Rather than the unpolished, immature prose which a large portion of fantasy rushed from the keyboard to the press exhibits today, Kay has refined his wordplay to the point the pages turn almost imperceptibly. The tale unraveling rich and elegant, reveals are not immediate and the tone is subtle. A relaxing balance is struck between the formal use of language and a brevity depending more on action than word. Focusing on the human aspects and progression of the story, some readers may complain of the lack of cultural elements or details in the setting. As characterization and plot are so lush and textured, however, most will not notice.
In choosing so many historical settings for his novels, Kay is fast becoming the Michener of historical fantasy - The Lions of Al-Rassan not excluded. The themes of love, honor, duty, sacrifice, loyalty, etc. so pervasive, the novel is nothing less than classic storytelling. Thus, for those who enjoy stories told in time worn tradition and in mythic scope, this novel is undoubtedly for you. Classic characters fleshing out a classic story, this is a well written book even if it adds nothing new to the genre.