The Lions of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay

I have two overwhelming impressions of Kay’s style, after reading The Lions of Al-Rassan. The first is that he really, really likes foreshadowing, and the second is that he likes using foreshadowing to trip you up. Both of these I find infuriating in the concentrations he uses, I have to admit. Foreshadowing can be a useful and exciting tool, but there is only so much one can take of it before the eye-rolling and the sighing commences. Especially when the foreshadowing is so often just “this happy thing that’s going on? Little did s/he/they know it wasn’t going to last…”. Yeah yeah, we get it. Slightly-fantasy medieval pseudo-Spain is a place full of terrible things happening to people we really quite like. Repeatedly.

The setting does, I have to admit, grate a little too. He could have made it a bit less obviously pseudo-Spain. With less obvious pseudo-Christians, Jews and Muslims and holy wars. Seriously, the book is about “Esperaña”… I know this is what Kay does; I have read another of his books, but like Sailing to Sarantium, he could do with being just a tiny bit subtler about it all. I say this as someone who appreciates his dedication to historicality, truly, but there are limits.

I imagine it is this historicality that creates my next problem. I can’t really put my finger on exact examples of what I mean, but there’s a feeling I got throughout the book as I read of it not working quite like a normal fiction story. Most fiction, and I think fantasy more than most, has a narrative drive towards a specific aim (even if the aim isn’t known). It’s about a person or group of people trying to do/find/destroy/free/imprison/whatever a thing. It’s not even the achieving it that’s really the point, but the trying… it’s through the course of the trying that other events happen and make a story (though obviously there are more complicated versions, with separate threads etc. etc., but there still tends to be something of a narrative focus going on and a general sense of trying to get somewhere). In tLoAR though, Kay doesn’t seem to have bothered with this. It feels more than anything like a chronicle of some things that happened, and the people they happened to. There never seems to be any sense of a goal being aimed for by the main characters, or a drive to achieve… well, anything. Stuff just happens and they react to it. Which, I might suggest, is a rather more historical than narrative perspective of things. It’s still pretty narrative as it focuses on a relatively select group of people, but it draws in lots of context, and is definitely driven by things happening to the characters rather than anything they actually do.

Again, I am fairly sure this is deliberate. It fits in neatly with the whole pseudo-history thing and if you’re going to go for a style, may as well go all in. But I found it pretty jarring, and actually irritating by the end, much more so than Sailing to Sarantium, which I rather liked. I suppose partly this is because Kay has something working against the grain of pseudo-history. He’s just too nice. Where GRRM will kill everyone you ever loved, Kay seems incapable of killing a character you might have liked in any real way, and certainly not up close and personal. And when he does do it, he hides it under misdirection and mystery, so you’re not even totally sure. There was one moment, most of the way through the book, where I thought someone had died and then he hadn’t, and it just frustrated me so much. It was a very narrative choice of death. It made a lot of sense for the story, and the characters and would have just fit ever so neatly into what was going on. But then Kay basically crowbarred a miracle in for him. And it just… didn’t fit right. Most of the time, his characters are incredibly lucky in their not-dying-when-they-totally-should have powers.

I’m aware I’m contradicting myself; first he’s too historical, but then not enough. But I think it’s a fair point. He is choosing the wrong places to stick to his theme, when there are perhaps places where it would fit better and leave the reader better satisfied. Balance isn’t just about quantity, but also quality.

All of the above whine aside, I did enjoy the book. It’s one of the ones I have to be in the right mood for, and I wasn’t quite, but for a twice daily commute of an hour and a half (oh the joys) on the train, it has a pleasing sense of calm to it. That’s the one major upside I can see the historical style. I felt it more keenly with Sailing to Sarantium, and more favourably, but it is still present in tLoAR, and it can be a very joyous thing at the right time. There’s just an overwhelming sense of peace I get from reading his books. Maybe it’s not all, and I’ve just read the ones that do characterise it, but it is the reason that I will choose to read more of his work, even if I do continue to whinge about any other aspects of it. Some books you get excited about, but some books make you feel better-rested and more relaxed for having read them, and that can be just as desirable… especially when someone’s armpit is in your face on the Tube/the train drive is announcing at Southall that people need to get off the train now because they won’t fit and the doors won’t close.

Basically, it is a well-written book in many ways, but it has its flaws, and one needs to be in very much the right frame of mind to fully appreciate it.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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