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Guy Gavriel Kay

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We seem to have let the old thread die, which is a shame.

Anyway, I'm going to be rereading Kay over the next year or two, and hopefully pick up Ysabel for the first time and try again to get through the Fionavar books. In the meantime, here's a review of The Lions of Al-Rassan:

Al-Rassan was the stronghold of the western Asharite faith until Ammar ibn Khairan killed the last khalif, splintering the land into feuding city-states. In the north the Jaddite kingdom of Esperana similarly splintered into three smaller nations, each harbouring a desire to conquer the others and unify the entire peninsular in the worship of the sun-god. King Ramiro of Valledo appears to be the most likely to succeed, due to the skills of his infamous general Rodrigo Belmonte and his elite company of soldiers. Political intrigue and expediency soon see both Rodrigo and Ammar exiled to Ragosa, the beautiful Asharite city by the lake, where their destinies become entwined with that of Jehane, a Kindath physician, and where the fate of Al-Rassan and Esperana will be decided.

When it comes to epic fantasy, Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the more interesting writers around. For someone toiling in the genre of vast armies and immense battles, the depiction of war and combat seems to mildly bore him. That's not to say that Kay can't handle those elements, but he is far more interested in his characters, in their motivations and what role they play in the political world around them. A possible weakness of Kay's work is that his fascination with his character's internal struggles sometimes displaces his interest in the wider plot (as in The Sarantine Mosaic, the languid pace of which detracts from a strong central premise), but in his strongest works - this book, Tigana and A Song for Arbonne - he combines this element with a mastery of storytelling to produce something truly compelling.

This is the story of El Cid and the Reconquista of Spain given a thorough make-over, with historical elements mixing with original material throughout. On one level, Kay's light remixing of history occasionally makes the reader wonder what the point of 'fantasising' the story was in the first place. It's pretty clear throughout that the Kindath are the Jews, the Asharites are Muslims and the Jaddites are Christians (even though their individual belief systems are very different to the 'real' religions, everything else is practically identical, down to their naming conventions). In fact, one of the reasons for the delay of the long-gestating movie version of the novel appears to be writer and director uncertainty whether the film should reflect the book or be set in 'proper' Al-Andalus. However, these factors do allow Kay to tell his own story, using history where he wants but retaining the freedom to create his own material elsewhere. Most notably, he manages to compress the latter four centuries of the Reconquista into a much smaller period of time to better suit the action. The result is a story which feels familiar and new at the same time.

The book studies several themes and ideas: faith and tolerance, friendship and love, family and camaraderie, war and idealism. Kay illuminates these ideas through his characters, and whilst Kay has always been a gifted creator of fascinating protagonists, arguably he has never bettered the cast of this book: Ammar and Rodrigo, whose rivalry and friendship forms the core of the novel; the gifted physician Jehane; the imprudent soldier Alvar; even minor characters like the merchant Husari and the outlaw Tarif, all seem to leap off the page as fully-formed individuals, whose actions and reactions will determine the fate of the peninsular. Events culminate in the book's inevitable final showdown, and whilst some readers may find the skipping of much of the war and the major battles to focus on one key event in particular to be a bit of a cop-out, those familiar with Kay will recognise that for him, war is nothing to be glorified in its depiction, but only to be used as an event to mould his characters and reflect on them, and in that endeavour he succeeds impressively.

The Lions of Al-Rassan (*****) is a book that has improved since I first read it thirteen years ago. Thoughtful but never boring, dramatic but never over-the-top, it is a beautifully-written and thought-provoking novel from one of fantasy's more underrated authors. The novel is shamefully out-of-print in the UK, but the Voyager paperback edition can still be found on Amazon. The US edition is published by Eos.

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Thank you for saving me the trouble of choosing between a new and old GGK thread.

I picked up Tigana awhile back but kept putting it aside. After finishing my most recent book and waiting for my next shipment to arrive, I gave the book another shot and I must say, I looooooove it.

Only halfway through, but he makes me feel like a kid reading fantasy for the first time all over again. I never know what's coming next or how things will play out. At this point I'm just along for the ride, waiting to see where the story will take me.

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The Lions of Al Rassan is one of my favorite fantasy novels period. The language was beautiful, the characterization adept, and the because of this the plot, which did not consist of 100000 troop armies blasting each other with magic, as is the norm nowadays in epic fantasy, was all the mor powerful. I recommend it to anyone who likes beautifully written fantasy.

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This is my only Kay I've read and I've been meaning to go with Tigana next followed by Song for Arbonne.

I'm being a bit redundant when I say the following: I don't really see this book as a fantasy novel. I'm fine with it being put into that genre but this to me is a classic example of why we need a broader classification like speculative fiction. It fits into that just fine.

Other than two moons, a character who has visions of the future, and the "almost Spain" setting, is there anything fantastical about it? This is not a criticism at all but an observation.

Good book.

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This is my only Kay I've read and I've been meaning to go with Tigana next followed by Song for Arbonne.

I'm being a bit redundant when I say the following: I don't really see this book as a fantasy novel. I'm fine with it being put into that genre but this to me is a classic example of why we need a broader classification like speculative fiction. It fits into that just fine.

Other than two moons, a character who has visions of the future, and the "almost Spain" setting, is there anything fantastical about it? This is not a criticism at all but an observation.

Good book.

The only overtly fantastical thing is the slightly weird bit near the end where we are told that the shared world which appears in Lions, Sarantine and Last Light, is a sort of halfway house between Fionavar (here called Finar), the one true world, and others (i.e. our world). Aside from confirming that all of Kay's books take place in the same multiverse, this has zero impact on events and can be safely disregarded :)

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Other than two moons, a character who has visions of the future, and the "almost Spain" setting, is there anything fantastical about it? This is not a criticism at all but an observation.

I can't remember anything besides that.

One thing to note, though, is that Al-Rassan shares a world with the Sarantine Mosaic and (IIRC) Last Light of the Sun. It is chronologically the latest of the three. In all three stories, there's a very clear through-line that magic is vanishing from the world as humanity achieves greater mastery over its environment. The faerie world (for lack of a better term) is still strong in Last Light, though fading. In the Sarantine Mosaic, it's almost gone, surviving only in Ludan's forest*. By the time the world advances to the setting of Al-Rassan, there are only the merest shadows of magic left.

So there's some background magic in the sense that the setting used to be more magical than it is in Al-Rassan, but in that specific novel, I don't think there's anything you didn't already point out.

(* -- I can't remember whether Last Light comes before or after the Sarantine Mosaic time-wise, but I think it's safe to say that the Sarantine Empire is a good deal further along the civilization continuum.)

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Doesn't The Lions of Al-Rassan also contain a psychic? I'm racking my brains trying to remember ... Rodrigo's son? And there was a head injury involved. Or something.

Need to reread this book.

Edited by Alaerien

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I've always described the majority of Kay's novels as alternate historical fantasy.

Doesn't The Lions of Al-Rassan also contain a psychic? I'm racking my brains trying to remember ... Rodrigo's son? And there was a head injury involved. Or something.

Need to reread this book.

I think it was Sailing to Sarantium that had the semi-psychic. Crispin visits him just before he heads off to the city.

Lions did have a head injury, which happened to Rodrigo's son and Jehane's blind father directed her in the operation that saved the boy's life.

Edited by beniowa

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The only overtly fantastical thing is the slightly weird bit near the end where we are told that the shared world which appears in Lions, Sarantine and Last Light, is a sort of halfway house between Fionavar (here called Finar), the one true world, and others (i.e. our world). Aside from confirming that all of Kay's books take place in the same multiverse, this has zero impact on events and can be safely disregarded :)

During Tigana two of the characters talk a little of cosmology:

"What my nurse used to tell me was what her mother told her, and her mother's mother before, I have no doubt: that some of us are born over and again into various of these worlds until, at the last, if we have earned it by the manner of our lives, we are born a final time into Finavir or Finvair which is the nearest of all the worlds to where the true gods dwell."

Finavir (the spelling in this book) is pretty much a fairy tale told to children with potentially larger implications for those who consider it.

Its nice to see something shared between the novels, but like you said, its some extra flavor, nothing more. We're not looking at Stephen King 2.0 or something.

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During Tigana two of the characters talk a little of cosmology:

"What my nurse used to tell me was what her mother told her, and her mother's mother before, I have no doubt: that some of us are born over and again into various of these worlds until, at the last, if we have earned it by the manner of our lives, we are born a final time into Finavir or Finvair which is the nearest of all the worlds to where the true gods dwell."

Finavir (the spelling in this book) is pretty much a fairy tale told to children with potentially larger implications for those who consider it.

Its nice to see something shared between the novels, but like you said, its some extra flavor, nothing more. We're not looking at Stephen King 2.0 or something.

Yup, and Kay said in an interview that the landmasses in Tigana and Arbonne are on the same world. So that links all of his books together quite nicely. A bit weird actually, since he's not the sort of author who appears to be overtly concerned with that kind of continuity and worldbuilding detail.

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It's not really a concern as such. He's called it a "grace note" more than anything, a tip of the cap to his first series.

As to the Sarantine Mosaic, Rustem's son has the same ability as Rodrigo's son in The Lion's of Al-Rassan, and of course we've the magician Zoticus.

SPOILER: Sarantine Mosaic
As Rustem and his family move to Esparana, it seems not unlikely that Rodrigo or his sons (via their mother) are descended from Rustem's son, and that the "Sight" is passed through blood; see Fionavar, where Kate's mother seems to have inherited the second sight from her grandmother.

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Was the Fionavar Tapestry any good?

I'd say it was reasonably good, but not as good as Kay's other books, and different in that it is a fairly traditional High Fantasy with mages, elves (called the Lios Alfar, but they're fairly close to traditional elves), dwarves (who are actually called dwarves), dragons, an evil god in a dark fortress, bits of Arthur legend (including Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere as major characters) etc. Some bits of it are very good (the three nights on the Summer Tree, for example) but some bits I was unconvinced by. My biggest problems with it were mostly related to the five main characters who come from modern-day (well, the 1980s) Canada and are essentially kidnapped by a mage to join the fight against the evil god in Fionavar. I'm not particularly keen on that plot device in general, and there quite a few times when I found the reactions of the modern-day Canadians to the medieval fantasy realm to be unconvincing, they were just too accepting of some of the wild things they saw and the radically different society they encountered.

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(* -- I can't remember whether Last Light comes before or after the Sarantine Mosaic time-wise,

After.

For Triskele: The Sarantine Mosaic is, in my opinion, by far the best of GGK's books. Consider reading that one next, not A Song For Arbonne (which I found good, but not great) or Tigana (which I hated).

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After.

For Triskele: The Sarantine Mosaic is, in my opinion, by far the best of GGK's books. Consider reading that one next, not A Song For Arbonne (which I found good, but not great) or Tigana (which I hated).

Any and all input is appreciated. But damn, I swear Tigana must be a polarizing book because it tends to be in everyone's top two or among their list of criminally overrated.

For my personal reference having only read Lions, I think I would rate it a B+. That's on just one read for clarification.

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By the time the world advances to the setting of Al-Rassan, there are only the merest shadows of magic left.

It’s interesting to note that magic seems to have met the same fate in his writing – from the high fantasy realm of the Fionavar Tapestry with its recognizably Tolkienian roots; to Tigana, which is the only one of his books in which I recall there were wizards who wrought actual magic; to Esperana, Arbonne, etc., where there are a few clairvoyant individuals but more often than not what appears to be the hand of the God(dess) is in fact a clever ruse orchestrated by a wily old priest(ess).

It's nice to see something shared between the novels, but like you said, its some extra flavor, nothing more. We're not looking at Stephen King 2.0 or something.

No, not King, more in the vein of Zelazny. I always imagined Fionavar as a (loose equivalent of) Amber.

I've always described the majority of Kay's novels as alternate historical fantasy.

There is alternate historical fantasy and then there is alternate historical fantasy. In terms of keeping the shape of the European landmass as well as the general contours of medieval history intact, Kate Elliot’s “Crown of Stars†and Jacqueline Carey’s “Kushiel’s Legacy†come to mind. However, I think it’s safe to say that Guy Gavriel Kay is much closer to what I think of as fantasy or speculative fiction than either of the above, despite the fact that Carey’s world obeys all the laws of physics. Further proof (if any was needed after ASOIAF) that ‘tis not magic that maketh the genre.

The Sarantine Mosaic is, in my opinion, by far the best of GGK's books. Consider reading that one next, not A Song For Arbonne (which I found good, but not great) or Tigana (which I hated).

Really? Haha I would list my preferences in precisely the reverse order ie. Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, The Sarantine Mosaic. It may be simplistic but I tend to look at it as some people prefer Tyrion in King's Landing (One. Two. Three.) and others Jon on the Wall (Stannis! Stannis! STANNIS!). Tigana focuses on the repercussions of big, cataclysmic history-making events, whereas I think Sarantine Mosaic is more subtle, intimate, and nuanced.

Edited by Waterdancing Wench

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Any and all input is appreciated. But damn, I swear Tigana must be a polarizing book because it tends to be in everyone's top two or among their list of criminally overrated.

Yes, but as a fellow Gene Wolfe fan, you must be among the guys with good taste. ;)

It's hard to get into very much detail about why I disliked Tigana so much without spoiling, but some of the things I disliked were the extremely high level of magic (there is a sorcerer who can kill people by waving his hand and make their heads explode, and and another one who can avoid getting killed by a projectile by momentarily dissolving his body while the projectile passes through him), a cast of characters which with one or two exceptions are dull, annoying, and unlikable, and embarrassingly purple prose. It's not a good story, and it's not well written.

For my personal reference having only read Lions, I think I would rate it a B+. That's on just one read for clarification.

I think I would give it a similar rating. I've also just read it once.

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Thanks dude - I have read New Sun twice and was humbled by it.

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So far, I have read:

Tigana

A Song for Arbonne

The Last Light of the Sun

The Lions of Al-Rassan

I really liked Tigana and The Last Light of the Sun. I believe the best stand alone fantasy I have read.

A Song for Arbonne - I found to be mediocre. A whole story was good but the ending was really..meh..

The Lions of Al-Rassan - I liked and didn't like it. There were a few drawbacks that force me to say I didn't like it more than I liked it.

1. The beginning was very good. However, sometime starting from 1/3 or maybe 1/2? of the book there are huge time gaps when we have no idea what was happing to characters. We just have a very brief summary or hints on what happened. It is like a story should be 3 volumes series, instead it was made 1 volume book with a few concise summaries in the middle of the book. It was very annoying.

2. Politics.

SPOILER: I hated this part.
I hated that one moron (Ammar, Asharite)who is responsible for thousands of deaths that could be avoided stayed alive and enjoyed a happy married life while another brave man (Jaddite commander Rodrigo Belmonte) died leaving his family without a husband and father. I wonder how much of it was just foolish Political Correctness, so the book would not make a certain group of people belonging to a certain religion angry.

I believe the last 50 pages spoiled overall impression of the book for me completely.

For the life of me, I cannot fathom how Kay won the 2005 award from the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy, for The Lions of Al-Rassan.

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SPOILER: Lions
"hated that one moron (Ammar, Asharite)who is responsible for thousands of deaths that could be avoided stayed alive and enjoyed a happy married life while another brave man (Jaddite commander Rodrigo Belmonte) died leaving his family without a husband and father. I wonder how much of it was just foolish Political Correctness, so the book would not make a certain group of people belonging to a certain religion angry."

Uhm. In what fashion is he responsible for deaths that could be avoided? And why is Rodrigo's death worse than Ammar's? Ammar's death would have left Jehane without a husband and their children unborn. As Miranda herself was able to understand, there's really no great difference between losing the possibility of something very early and losing the actuality of something that you've had for some time.

For that matter, why do you assume that Kay choose to kill Rodrigo because of "political correctness"? That is, frankly, absurd. And on top of that, one of the most famous things about his historical antecendent, Rodrigo de Vivar, El Cid ... is that he's said to have died quite dramatically. His death was a natural progression, in a way.


Presumably he won the award because they recognized its quality and its treatment of how people who are divided by religion and political boundaries can make a community and a space in which to live their lives in peace.

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