I love to see genre literature explore religion. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the vicarious thrill of the non-believer getting inside the head of a person of faith. Maybe it’s the wonder of exploring the deeper possibilities of the universe. Maybe it’s the lure of giving in to the irrational, of wanting something more behind the scenes.
I particularly enjoy seeing fantasy explore the monotheistic traditions of Europe and the Middle East. I think that it’s something we used to be wary of. Fantasy religion tapped into the pagan stuff become that was safer and more acceptable. But the sub-genre that became urban fantasy has, to a large extent, smashed that taboo, and Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s magnificent Preacher leapt up and down on the pieces with filthy and humanistic vigour, really challenging what religion and the church are about.
What’s still rare, in my experience at least, is fantasy that explores the structures rather than the tropes of monotheism’s history.
That’s part of why I enjoyed the religions portrayed in The Lions of Al-Rassan so much. While not monotheistic they are clearly representative of Christianity, Islam and Judaism in their medieval forms. It’s not about the supernatural side of religion, it’s about the human institutions – the priesthoods and pogroms, the moments of beauty and horror all inspired by faith. It looks at religion with the eye of a sociologist or historian, not a myth-maker, and says ‘what’s going on here then?’ But it shows the results in a close up, personal way.
I can only speak from my own personal experience and reading, but I found the portrayal of the characters’ varied religious views and experiences more honest and intriguing than most others I’ve read.
All this allows the book to explore the themes of fanaticism and bigotry, as Jon Taylor pointed out in response to my previous post. And it does it well, not getting preachy and in your face, just showing the damage these things can do.
It’s a fascinating and very human portrayal of religion, and that’s probably why I enjoyed it so much. It’s one I’ll be thinking about next time I’m building a story world, considering how religion fits in as a social institution. And once again, it shows the things that Guy Gavriel Kay manages to do a little differently.
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On an unrelated note, if you have access to the BBC’s iPlayer then I strongly encourage you to go listen to this week’s Chain Reaction, in which comedian Frankie Boyle interviews comic writer Grant Morrison. Morrison is one of the most interesting and insightful people in popular culture, responsible for some magnificent story-telling and some mind-bending madness, and it’s a pleasure to hear him talk.