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.

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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.