The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

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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.


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.