The Lions of Al-Rassan - Guy Gavriel Kay Perhaps it’s incipient dementia?

I’ve lost too many brain cells to time and American TV but I just don’t get the GGK “love” evinced by many of my GR friends. I struggled through the first 100 pages of this book and seriously considered giving up entirely but I persevered to the end (albeit skimming through many pages) and left profoundly unimpressed.

Upon reflection, my difficulty with the novel is that at no point did the writing engage me. I didn’t find the alternate Medieval Spain all that inventive; I didn’t find the characters all that interesting. The story had moments of interest but overall I felt cynically manipulated at every point.

Points that made it impossible to enjoy this book:

The setting: Medieval history – particularly the very era when the Reconquista was getting underway – was my focus in college and in my post-graduate studies. Kay has done his homework but rather than using that knowledge to inform a true alternate history of Spain or a world with a Moorish flavor we have a world where the names have been changed…and that’s it. We have “al-Rassan” for “al-Andalus,” “Esperaña” for “Spain,” the “Majriti” for “Berbers,” “Jaddites” for “Christians,” “Asharites” for “Muslims,” … you get the idea.

The characters: Two points to make here. One is that our heroes and heroines are simply too good to be believed – Rodrigo, Ammar, Jehane, Miranda. They’re brilliant, understanding and “oh, so tragic.” And the bad guys are little better. A shade more gray (e.g., Almalik ibn Almalik or Yazir ibn Q’arif) but not much. I felt like I was being hit over the head with their awesomeness as well as with their angst over the terrible dilemmas they found themselves in. The in-your-face nature of the writing made it impossible for me to get into the story or to give a damn about the characters.

Point two is that Rodrigo et al. sound and act like 20/21st century people. There was never a moment when I felt I was in the mind of a man or woman born and raised in a Medieval (or Medievalish) world unlike my reading of Sheri Holman’s A Stolen Tongue. There, I could identify with or at any rate understand Fra Felix’s motivations and actions but they were wholly informed by Medieval premises, and I was in a thoroughly alien world. The same is true of William Golding’s Scorpion God, where we’re transported to a Stone Age tribe, Old Kingdom Egypt and late Republican Rome.

The sex scenes: Like a lot of the book, they were just too good to be true and cringe inducing.

The technology: This really only irked me in two places as, otherwise, there was nothing obviously anachronistic, and both had to do with the medical technology of the period. Jehane’s father – Ishak, a celebrated physician – performs a successful Caesarian section and a successful brain surgery. Though Muslim and Jewish (i.e., Asharite and Kindath) medical knowledge was – relatively speaking – light years beyond any Christian (i.e., Jaddite) lore, I just couldn’t buy it.

And on that topic and related to the unbelievable awesomeness of the characters – there was a scene where Kay could have introduced an element of humanity into Jehane’s character. One of the more vile villains – Garcia de Rada – suffers a whip lash. Jehane, much against her inclination, offers him advice on how to make sure it doesn’t fester because her Oath of Galinus (otherwise known as the Hippocratic Oath) demands that she offers succor to anyone. Why couldn’t we have seen a flaw in her character? A point where even her oath isn’t going to make her let Garcia suffer less? Rather than making me dislike her it would have made her more real.

Whew…is there anything good I can say about the book? I did give it two stars, after all.

Not really. I may become more generous as the immediacy of my reading lessens but the novel is just “okay” in my book. I wish I could share in the enthusiasm of many of my GR friends (and I’ll still take their ratings, recommendations and reviews seriously) but I can’t.

I don’t know if I want to give Kay another chance. I’m still intrigued by the idea behind Tigana, for example, but I’m not sure I could endure the writing style again.

I think I’m going to go off now and write a review of a book I that’s more than “OK.”