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.