Not In Kansas Any More

Today I have a guest post from writer, scholar and occasional saviour of my sanity everwalker. She has an excellent blog on writing, and today she’s sharing some of her wisdom with us. So without further ado…


 

When I chose my degree, many many moons ago, I knew perfectly well that Classics would never be of any practical use. As it turns out, however, that’s proven to be incorrect. To date, I’ve built six different cultures off the back of it, as well as a language based on Akkadian (Ancient Mesopotamian) and the gods alone know how many poems.

Let’s Start At The Very Beginning

For me, world-building begins with real life. It may be a fantasy setting but that’s no reason to do all the heavy lifting yourself. History – especially ancient history – has more in the way of weird cultural birthmarks, ridiculous wars and religious madness than you could ever come up with yourself. Use it. Glory in it. And then edit out the stuff that’s too ridiculous to be believable in fiction. Seriously.

1832: Alexandre Dumas visited the Alps, and attended a trial at which two live bears were summoned as witnesses.  ~  History Without the Boring Bits, Ian Crofton

I tend to start by working out what basic flavour my fantasy culture should be. Is it European or something more exotic? What era is it, and therefore what level of technology? What’s the environment like, both in terms of terrain and weather? Is there a class/caste system? That gives me some parameters to work with and an idea of where to start borrowing.

As an example, I’m currently building a culture which I want to make slightly exotic and highly decadent. The terrain varies from desert to steppes, and there is a strict caste system in place. Looking at a map of our world, the culture that fits those parameters best is the Persian Empire in the days of Alexander the Great. I have a place and time to start investigating.

Next Stop: Research

Now I need to find some cool bits and pieces to flesh out the history and culture of my fantasy empire. I’m not talking about taking whole centuries of events and transplanting them wholescale. Just the highlights that are both interesting and make the culture feel real. Because I live in London and am therefore ridiculously fortunate in the matter of resources, my first stop is usually the British Museum. Libraries, art galleries, anything like that – it’s all good.

Iranian battle mask, C18th. Or, in my world, the face of a golem.

Sticking with this example, I take a look at some friezes and artefacts recovered from various dig sites. I don’t restrict myself to JUST the era of Alex the G. Anything that strikes me as shiny gets noted down. Early Persian kings liked to hunt lions, as a symbol of their authority protecting the people from chaos. They also held lying to be the worst possible sin and went all-out on protecting doors with divine symbols as they considered doorways to be key locations through which good and evil influences could enter.

That doesn’t really cover the truly decadent palace approach that I’m looking for, though. For that I turned to the excellent The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski – a first-hand account of the reign and fall of Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Elect of God, Lion of Judah, etc etc etc. That tells me the relative importance of the second doorman in the Imperial audience chamber and how, during the Hour of Informants, the Emperor fed his exotic animals whilst listening to reports from the Intelligence Bureau.

Make Like Dr. Moreau

Finally, I put it all together by combining real and fantastical elements, and then working out the consequences.

For example, elsewhere in my world setting it’s been established that elves are naturally the best at creative imagination. In other cultures this has led to them excelling as priests, storytellers, artists and so on. In a Persian-like culture, where lying and deceit is the most abhorrent crime, it results in elves being persecuted, declared unclean, and worse.

Another example – I have decided the ruling caste are fae. Again already established elsewhere, they are immortal. What does that mean for a society? The people in charge never change, which contributes massively to political and cultural stagnation. New generations, if politically ambitious, have to resort to literally cut-throat methods of advancement. That sets the tone of the ruling elite.

As far as resources go, there will be constant pressure due to an immortal and increasing population. So that leads to an aggressive expansionist model. The army becomes very important, and operates in the way that the Persian armies did (about which we have plenty of information). It also means that the frontier becomes a place of possibility for the new generations who don’t want to engage in vicious politics. They can set up new settlements in the newly conquered lands, and make a space for themselves that way. So we have an atmosphere for frontier life, and an overview of the country where generations are effectively set up like tree-trunk rings out from the centre.

Ta-da! One fantasy culture based on historical evidence.

Imitation Is The Sincerest Form Of Flattery

Why bother with all that research, I hear you cry? (Well, I don’t because the internet doesn’t work that way and, last time I checked, I wasn’t psychic, but you know what I mean.) Why can’t we just make it all up, using our powerful imaginations and writerly know-how? The answer, of course, is that you can. Of course you can. But there are a few reasons why you might want to consider this kind of approach.

  1. Using a known culture gives your readers an automatic way in. They can see, from a few choice details, what you’re emulating and instantly populate it much more richly. That makes your story rich in their minds, which can only be a good thing. Guy Gavriel Kaye – a writer that both Andy and I have gone on about in the past – is an expert at doing this. There’s a reason we keep going on about him.
  2. As previously mentioned, it saves you some heavy lifting. If you want to focus all your writing energies on character and plot development, rather than filling in the details of the cultural background, this is an excellent way to help build up a rich setting without spending massive amounts of time working out a palace protocol that your reader will see one small part of, once.
  3. Inspiration! By all means make 99.9% of your fantasy culture up wholesale, but looking at existing things can give you some great inspiration. Did you know, for example, that Spartans gave women who died in childbirth a warrior’s funeral? Or that the labyrinth from the Minotaur myth actually comes from the labrys – the name of the ceremonial double-headed axe used in Cretan ceremonies, combined with a tendency to decorate the palace floors in mosaic spirals? That’s cool stuff which can inspire whole new avenues of make-believe you never would have thought of otherwise.
  4. People care about the strangest, most insignificant things. The less you get it wrong, the less upset they’ll be. Terry Pratchett once said that a fan drew a map of the Discworld according to descriptions given in various books, and worked out that the apparent wettest place in the continent was actually sitting in a rain shadow. Distracting people from the story is a bad thing, m’kay? Research – and borrowing from reality – helps avoid it.
  5. It’s fun? Well, I think it is.

 

 

Art and power in the Sarantine Mosaic

Art and artisanship are recurring themes in Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, but they play a particularly prominent part in The Sarantine Mosaic. The name of this pair of books is a sign in itself, pointing to the centrality of the mosaicist Crispin’s art both as a plot element and as a symbol of the themes explored in the book.

Sailing to Sarantium

 

A few months back I asked Kay via Twitter about his interest in art as a theme, and he said that he is particularly interested in the relationship of art and power. And it’s this relationship that The Sarantine Mosaic explores, and through which it can help us to consider art’s role within society.

Art influences power

The Sarantine Mosaic explores art and culture in its broadest sense. There is the artistry of Crispin, creating his great mosaic; the new masterpiece of architecture he is decorating; the dancers who perform for racing fans and charioteers; the charioteers themselves, experts in the hazardous art of racing; the bureaucrat recording a history of the empire.

In all of this, art is a tool used to influence the balance of power. The new shrine is intended to secure the emperor’s position and contain religious disputes. The empress, herself once a dancer, uses her skills as a performer to influence the people around her. The chariot races are both the opiate of the masses, giving them a distraction from concerns about politics, and the trigger for violent upheavals.

More intimately, art is shown to inspire and influence great men and women, to shape the way that they look at and direct the world.

Power influences art

The relationship also works the other way around. Power has a great hold over art, over what is made and what endures. Crispin gets to make his mosaic because someone in power wants him to. Dominant religious doctrine limits what can be portrayed in art, though the artists find ways to subvert this. Dancers, writers, mosaicists, charioteers, all rely to some extent on patronage, and so are influenced by the powerful in what they portray.

This also affects the tools available to them. Crispin is able to create his greatest work in Sarantium precisely because that city is so powerful, its rulers having the wealth and influence to provide him with the finest materials available for his craft. Just as art can make people of power catch their breath, so too can the powerful provide artists with sublime moments.

But at its most brutal power is a restrictive force. It prevents and destroys certain types of art. It binds and restricts. It can chain the artist as readily as it can liberate her.

Art reflects power back

This is not to say that the ultimate message of these books is one of the tragedy of art and power. Art is shown as a mirror in which the powerful are shown themselves; as a window which reveals them to the world; as a microscope that brings scrutiny to certain aspects of their behaviour; as a medium in which the powerful and their achievements can be made to endure.

Our own awareness

It’s important to take these lessons on board, not just as abstractions from a fantasy story but as real issues for us in the modern world.

The relationship between power and art is a complex one, mediated and disguised by the influence of money. But for all the democratising influence of the internet age, it is still people in power – the wealthy, the influential, the publicly seen – who decide what art achieves prominence, what is widely read and enjoyed. The Sarantine Mosaic reminds us we have the power to influence them back, to shape the way they view the world, to duck around the limits they place on us and provide subversive commentary as we reflect power itself.

I’m not going to say that we have a duty. We all have choices to make, and I can’t impose obligations on anyone even if I wanted to. But art in all its forms provides us with opportunity, and it would be a shame not to seize it.

Beauty that aspires to endure: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lord of Emperors

She had asked him for something more permanent, the golden rose speaking to the fragility of beautiful things, a mosaic hinting at that which might last. A craft that aspired to endure.

Lord of Emperors, the second half of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Sarantine Mosaic, is an extraordinary book. If you’ve read my comments on Sailing to Sarantium then you won’t be surprised to see me write that. But still, it’s worth saying, and indeed worth repeating. This is a deep, rich book which should endure just as surely as the fine art at the heart of its narrative. I’ll probably come back to that theme of art, and others explored in the book, in later blog posts. But first, lets have something approximating a review, in which I obsess over certain details…

Lord of Emperors

Setting and story

Lord of Emperors completes the of story Crispin, a mosaicist summoned east to the city of Sarantium to create a career-defining work of art, decorating the ceiling of a great religious sanctuary commissioned by the Emperor Valerius II. There he becomes entangled in a web of politics and passion, as ambition and long-held grievances play out in the royal court while the passions and frustrations of the common mob are channelled through support of two great chariot racing teams.

The world of this story is based on Constantinople and the surrounding region in the 6th century AD. As with several of his other novels, Kay has taken an existing setting, shaved off the proper nouns and added the lightest sprinkling of fantasy, rather than creating a whole setting from scratch. It’s a fascinating and unusual approach that lets him take more liberties with characters and events than he could in a straight historical novel, while still using the rich setting and tone available through delving into history. It’s an act very much in the historically-inspired spirit of Tolkien, whose works Kay helped edit, and also reflects Tolkien’s interest in creating total immersion in secondary worlds.

The world of Sarantium is vividly portrayed, a place of politics and power, ambition and uncertainty, in which events are determined both by careful, unspoken implication and by wild acts of courage on the race track.

It’s a wonderful place to explore.

A sedate telling

I find the pacing of Kay’s books, and particularly this one, absolutely bizarre at times. This is a thumping great 600+ pages of fiction, in which most of the action plays out over a mere handful of days. And it’s not like 24, where a ridiculously jam-packed string of events makes a short timescale feel exciting. It just takes a lot of pages to get through these events.

Sounds like it should be dull and frustrating, right? Yet it isn’t. It’s an exquisite gem of a story, in which each new scene, each different perspective adds to its beauty and shines new light on what you’ve already seen. The reader feels the characters’ passions, their triumphs and tragedies, their tears and laughter. By the time events reached their climax I didn’t know how it would all end, but I yearned to find out.

Not the fancy word choices but the right ones

I’m still not sure how Kay manages to achieve what he does, but I think it might be in the details.

If a writer wants to add texture to a scene they’ve basically got two options – choice of words and choice of detail. Trying to cram in more through word choice can lead you down a slippery slope into obscure language and reaching for the thesaurus, assembling sentences that force readers to pause and think. Adding more detail, on the other hand, can add richness without breaking the flow of reading. It needs to be the right details so that readers will be interested rather than bored, details of thought and of action as much as of setting. But Kay is a master of this, filling page after page with small moments that build towards an entrancing whole.

For me, this is the big writing lesson of the book – complex details, simple language. You can achieve a lot that way.

Now go read!

This book won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s not crammed full of fast-paced action. It takes a long time to do what it does. But it’s beautifully written, fascinating in its detail, and I really think you should give it a go. After reading Sailing to Sarantium that is, because they’re effectively two halves of a single story.

If you’ve read Lord of Emperors let me know what you thought of it. Were you as entranced as I was? Leave a comment, share your views.

Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

I love to see and hear about the process of creating art. Whether it’s writing, painting, acting, sculpting or any of the other limitless expressions of human creativity, understanding how it is achieved fascinates me.

During our recent trip to Cornwall, Laura and I got to see inside an artist’s studio. We saw paintings in progress, tools of the trade, learned a little about how she developed her work. I was enraptured.

That feeling of living inside art, of seeing how it works and how it moves people, is something that Guy Gavriel Kay has captured beautifully in Sailing to Sarantium.

Sailing to Sarantium

 

Art and artisans

Sailing to Sarantium is the story of Caius Crispus, an expert mosaic maker. He lives in a world based on the eastern Mediterranean in the period a century or so after the fall of Rome. Following his artistic partner’s summons to go east and decorate the great dome of a temple being built in Sarantium, Crispin travels a rough road to a city of wonder and intrigue.

I loved how much we got into Crispin’s head as an artist. He sees the colours and contrasts in the world around him. He is overwhelmed by art when it is beautiful and he is thoughtful about its potential and flaws. He is an expert artisan, and the details of his knowledge and world view make him completely convincing in that role. They also helped me, as a reader, to understand the world as he saw it and to be drawn into his emotional world.

Other characters demonstrate similar levels of expertise – a grey-haired alchemist who has created unique wonders; a ruthless and wily political schemer turned emperor; the finest dancer in the city of Sarantium. Characters are often judged for their expertise and dedication to their field, and that dedication seems to be held up by the book as a good thing. But it is Crispin who carries us through the story.

Religion as construct

As with The Lions of Al-Rassan, Kay explores religion as a social construct. We are given little clear indication as to the truth of the characters’ beliefs, but those beliefs are central to the story. From the forced converts continuing pagan sacrifices in the woods to the religious schisms restricting and enabling art, religion is a complicated matter, one that people shape.

Religion does not just happen to people in this book. There are moments of startling emotion that could be considered divine revelation, but it is up to the characters how to respond and what to believe. Religion is a choice, and this human, social representation of religion is one that I really enjoyed.

The sublime

For all that he peers behind the scenes of art and shows the human side of religious experience, Kay stills creates a sense of wonder. That wonder lies in how we are moved by art, by passion, by moments of human contact. That feeling left me utterly enthralled.

And though Kay lets us peer into the workings of the mosaic maker’s craft, he still left me bewildered and in awe at his own craft. This is a big book, and a slow paced one. Yet I remained passionately engaged throughout, fascinated by every moment, rushing towards each new page.

And I don’t know why.

Seriously, I spend hours every week listening to podcasts about writing, reading about writing, practising my own craft. And I still don’t know how, in technical detail and technique, he kept me so engaged in a book whose size and pacing would normally put me off.

As I read more of his books – next up is the sequel, Lord of Emperors – I hope to work at least some of this out. But for now I have experienced the pleasure both of learning a little more about an artist’s craft and of remaining in awe at the wonders that art can achieve.

That is some damn fine reading.

Other opinions are available

So, who else has read this? I know some of you have. What did you think? Did you enjoy it? Why? Or why not? What were your favourite elements? There’s space here for comments and discussion, please feel free to use it.

Holding back – lessons from Al-Rassan 4

In discussing The Lions of Al-Rassan I’ve deliberately kept one aspect of Guy Gavriel Kay’s technique until last. It’s an interesting one, and it’s one that he mostly uses well, but if there’s one thing about the book that bothers me then it’s over-use of this. So, not to put you off, but today I’m going to be slightly less gushing and slightly more critical.

Withholding on character

Authors always withhold some information from their audiences. Without it there are no mysteries. What’s the point of a Poirot story if you see who done it at the start?

There’s a particular approach to this that is more unusual and that can be used to build up tension. That’s withholding key information about a character. It’s often used to develop surprising twists in short stories and jokes, as the audience discovers near the end that an assumption they were led towards about the character’s gender, identity or state of being is wrong.

Sixth Sense, I’m looking at you. And I’m looking with admiration.

It’s a neat bit of trickery that pulls the rug out from beneath the audience’s feet, or that can create mystery in an otherwise dull situation. Jill is walking down the road to see a man, but which man? There are two we know that she has been seeing. Which one has she chosen? When will we know???

And right there, that’s also the problem with this technique. You’re building tension out of nothing. You’re often seeing the scene from the point of view of a character who knows exactly what’s going on, and the author is going to great lengths to hold something back, avoiding proper nouns or describing things in a circuitous fashion. Itrelies on the novelty of the technique rather than the strength of the story, and that’s a dangerous thing.

Withholding in Al-Rassan

Kay does this several times in the course of The Lions of Al-Rassan. Every time he writes it well. He builds up suspense in the reader. In one scene we know that a character has died and we know how. We know from the other characters’ reactions that it’s someone we care about. But who is it? By showing the scene from several different perspectives Kay draws out this tension and adds to the emotional punch of the moment, as the tragic truth approaches the reader through a maze of red herrings.

The problem is that he does it several times, and by the end it was starting to feel rather forced. A character thinking about his wife repeatedly over several pages without ever letting slip her name to the reader? That doesn’t feel natural and it reduces my immersion in the story.

I’m glad that I got to see how Kay used this technique, but I could have done with a little less of it. So my final lesson from this book is that, if you’ve got a clever literary trick you want to play with, don’t overdo it. All things in moderation.

Loving the Lions

I don’t want to finish on a bum note. No book is flawless, but The Lions of Al-Rassan is a great one. And so for the last time this week I say go read this book. It’s well worth your time.

Have a fun weekend everyone. Go read some good books. Maybe tell me about them, or your thoughts on Al-Rassan, in the comments below.

Making it personal – lessons from Al-Rassan 3

One of the things that Guy Gavriel Kay does best in The Lions of Al-Rassan is making big things personal. I must have written about this before, but it’s important enough as a lesson for writers and readers that it’s worth looking at what Kay does.

Kay's writing is as beautiful and intricate as the Moorish art that helped inspire it. This metaphor, on the other hand, has all the nuance of those Frankish crusaders who came stomping back in.
Kay’s writing is as beautiful and intricate as the Moorish art that helped inspire it. This metaphor, on the other hand, has all the nuance of those Frankish crusaders who came stomping back in.

The huge

The Lions of Al-Rassan is, in some ways, the story of huge political events. It depicts the political and religious struggles for control of a region currently broken up into separate kingdoms, and the end of a way of life.

It also depicts the dangers of fanaticism and bigotry, how these shape history and endanger lives.

Big themes, huh?

The intimate

Despite all this, the story is structured around the personal relationships of a small group of characters. It’s the story of Jehane bet Ishak’s journey out into the world and the recovery of her relationship with her father. It’s Rodrigo Belmonte’s struggle to protect his family, caught up in a deadly web of politics. It’s Ammar ibn Khairan’s quest to do right by his people. It’s the emerging relationship between the three of theme, often subtly depicted and always intriguing.

If the novel’s so concerned with big themes then why do these people matter?

Because it’s the personal that draws us in. The politics and the warfare can be exciting, but they’re also distant from what’s familiar to us, and sometimes impersonal. The relationships between the characters give us something that’s more familiar, if still fascinating. Love, loyalty, ambition. And by connecting those characters into the themes and events of the novel Kay gives us reason to care about the big events, to feel them deeply and personally.

Tying them together

While it’s important to have the small and personal alongside the grand events, it’s also important to connect them together. Kay does this by depicting a group of characters whose allegiances are pulled in different directions, whose loyalties, religions and ethnicities tear them apart against their will, like the land they live in. They are placed at the centre of events but not through the most obvious positions. They are not the kings and caliphs, and for most of the novel not the generals leading the armies. They affect and are affected by the struggles, but their places in those struggles aren’t always obvious. Their need to negotiate that, to work out what they want and why, highlights the struggles and themes of the book.

So that was good

As I’ve made clear before, I think Kay writes beautifully, and the way this book works shows that he can also plot like a badass. This sort of nuance doesn’t just fall into place, it takes skill and planning.

Tomorrow, more Al-Rassan. For now, go forth and read. Think about how characters tie in to bigger themes and events in books. Maybe tell me about other great examples below.

 

Picture by Larry Wentzel via Flickr creative commons.

Religion as society – lessons from The Lions of Al-Rassan 2

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.

* * *

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.

Steal and steal well – first lesson from The Lions of Al-Rassan

I finished reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan yesterday. It was a beautifully written and fascinating book, and I’ll probably be writing about it most of this week, because like all the best books it’s taught me lots of lessons.

Spoiler alert - it's not about real lions
Spoiler alert – it’s not about real lions

Setting somewhere different

First up, the most obvious thing to talk about – the setting.

The Lions of Al-Rassan is a fantasy novel with almost no fantasy. It’s set in a secondary world version of Medieval Spain, a period known in real world history as the Reconquista. There’s one single magical fantasy element in the whole book, and other than that it’s essentially a piece of historical fiction with the details tweaked.

It’s an interestingly different setting, one that emphasises the world-building aspects of fantasy rather than the magical ones. It’s a bit like chopping the most wacky ten percent off of George R R Martin’s Westeros and leaving behind the world of people and politics. It lets Kay explore the possibilities and wonders of a historical period without being tied down to specific events and without the risk of someone turning round and calling him out for historical inaccuracy.

It’s also interesting to see an author use that setting as a basis for any sort of fantasy. Secondary world fantasy settings, while usually taking a lot of their queues from medieval Europe, haven’t often played with the particular features of the Iberian peninsula. While this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered Arabian-influenced fantasy it is the first time I’ve seen someone use the particular political and culture encounters, the clashes and compromises, and the elegant half-way-house culture that was Spain during the great struggle for dominance between Europe and Islam. It makes for a very different feel.

Here comes the history…

OK, let me step back a moment and put my history graduate hat on.

For those who don’t know it, Spain was torn between Islamic and European influences for most of the middle ages. These two great cultures – Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East – were defining themselves in contrast and conflict with each other, but also by absorbing influences from each other. From the first Islamic invasion in 711 to the fall of Granada in 1492 they grappled to control the Spanish peninsula, as a succession of different states rose and fell. The resulting culture took the best of both worlds to create something bold and vibrant. The resulting politics was bloody and horrifying, with battles and massacres aplenty.

Everybody in the peninsula defined themselves by their religion, even if other factors also came into play, and the differences between religious, cultural and political allegiances were not clear cut. But while this was mostly a land of Christians and Muslims competing with each other it was also a land in which a small Jewish minority sought to survive and to carve out their own niche amidst the chaos.

Using what’s distinctive

What’s so wonderful about Guy Gavriel Kay’s use of this is that he hasn’t just taken the outward trappings of the period – the caliphs and kings, the poets and princes. He’s taken the deep rooted institutions and issues and riffed on them to build his world. There are religions mirroring the places of Christianity, Islam and Judaism in medieval Spain. The politics between the city states reflects the real challenges and tensions of a period in which allegiances were slippery and borders ever-shifting. The massacre of one religious group by another is all the more powerful for reflecting what really happened to many Jews as tensions rose. And the plot of the book reflects the polarising influences that arose in the most bloody periods.

This means that you get much more than just another fantasy adventure. You get a world that’s both different and familiar, that’s utterly convincing in its detail. And for me, as a fantasy fan and a history fan, that’s some damn good reading.

Not done yet

I’ll be back to write more about this tomorrow I’m sure. In the meantime thank you to my friends who persuaded me to read this, especially Glenatron who’s evangelised for GGK any time I’ve created an opportunity.

Have you read The Lions of Al-Rassan? If you have let me know what you thought. If not then go read it!

Seriously.

Now.

Go.

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

I’m having an interesting time at the moment with books that shouldn’t work for me but do. On Monday I wrote about Steve Aylett’s The Inflatable Volunteer, which shouldn’t work because it’s such a wild, surreal mess, but which I love. But the example I want to write about today is very different.

Lions

Following recommendations from several people I’ve started reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan. It’s a secondary world fantasy in the style of medieval Spain, nicely written, with a rich setting and intriguing characters.

GGK lions

The thing about it that wouldn’t normally work for me is the way that setting is delivered. Kay has clearly put a lot of thought and effort into developing this world, and wants to explain it. There’s quite a bit of exposition early on, explaining the different social and religious groups and the political turmoil that’s engulfing the region. Normally I grind my teeth at such blatant info dumps. So why am I enjoying this so much?

Text and texture

I think there are three things carrying me through.

One is Kay’s prose. It’s beautifully written without being full of literary flourishes, so it keeps me engaged and carries me smoothly through. It’s pleasing but not pleased with itself, meaning that I’m never bored and never distracted by it.

Then there are the characters. They’re in interesting positions that illustrate how the world works and that make me want to see what will happen to them. They’ve got edge without slipping into dark, brooding cliche. I’ll put up with quite a lot for that.

But most important is the world itself. It’s unique and interesting. Having studied this period of history I can see what Kay is drawing on, the parallels with the major religions and wars of Spain in the middle ages. And I can see that he’s using that to create a secondary world that stands out from the rest, both in its different shape and its rich details. I’d sit and read articles about a world like this, so I’m certainly happy to read some exposition.

Old ground broken well

It strikes me that what Kay is doing isn’t necessarily all that ground breaking. Smooth, clear prose, interesting characters and a well developed world are fundamentals of good fantasy writing. What this book shows is that, if you do really well in some areas you can ignore others, like avoiding swathes of exposition.

Obviously I’m not at the point where I can start breaking the rules. You’ve got to be very good to get away with that. And Guy Gavriel Kay is very good. This is a fabulous book, and you really should read it.

Oh, and if you want more to ponder about backplot and explaining your world, check out everwalker’s most recent blog post.