Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

It took a long time from first day of reading to last day of reading, but I recently finished Guy Gavriel Kay's history-based fantasy The Lion's of Al-Rassan.  It took me a long time because everything these days takes a longer time, what with all the moving planning stuff that has to get done and the pain and such, but the real reason it took a long time is because I was dragging my feet because I knew this book would end in tears.  And holy cow, did it ever.  I've read four of this author's books now, and there are SO MANY TEARS IN EVERY ONE that I think I will need a Terry Pratchett chaser.  (Sorry, new Dresden Files book.  I will continue to exercise extreme self-control and put you off until I really need a pick-me-up and have a whole day to give you.)

I see why writers like Kay.  He is a master of technique.  He does things I would not let many other authors get away with doing, but he does them so well I just have to smile crookedly and bow to his mastery.  For instance, I should really be irked with Kay for this dragging out of cliffhangers he sometimes does.  Other authors have the decency to open the next section far away with another set of characters to distract us or just start out the next section by handing us the information in the first sentence.  Kay sometimes drags it out for PAGES.  And he does it brilliantly.  It just grinds the tragedy with the uncertainty for that much longer, and I should resent him for this obvious artifice.  Instead, I suppose I appreciate his acknowledgement that patient readers can sometimes savor the not-knowing for a while, that good readers can trust good authors to only use this device when it intensifies something important.  He uses these techniques with restraint, so they don't get tedious.

I knew that one of the characters was based on El-Cid, but I purposely didn't go and look to see how that story ended.  I didn't need to.  The fun thing about making fantasy out of history is that you don't have to be a slave to it.  Also, I was sure it was going to end in tragedy.  I don't know a lot about that period in history, but I did know that it was around the time when Spain went from being a society where Jews, Christians, and Muslims could mostly co-exist rationally to a place where that really wasn't the case anymore.  Lots of war and religious extremism and violence and religion used to disguise a desire for power and domination and the destruction of an era of peace that allowed some things to flourish that never had before.

Kay's omniscient point of view is excellent.  He effortlessly switches between characters, always moving to just the right character to keep the plot going, and he is deadly with his foreshadowing.  (It's kind of like a bludgeon, but he adds this foreshadowing sentence at the end of an otherwise seemingly slow-moving section, and it's like a punch in the gut.  You don't go on to the next section wondering what will happen.  Instead, you keep reading and wondering exactly how it will all go wrong.)  It's not that all of the POV characters are likeable; it's that they are all expertly drawn.  You understand something important even about the ones you dislike (and Kay knows how to limit your time in their heads to just the parts of the story that need to be told from that point of view to best move the plot along).

The story is so very timely for me right now, too.  The radio has recently been reminding me that this kind of "ideological" clashing didn't stop in the 11th century.  It's happening in the Middle East and in Southern Asia right now.  It is scary and it is ugly and it is messy.  It always has been.  It always will be.  It destroys things and people.  It breaks my heart, it probably breaks God's heart, and it breaks the world.  Reading the kind of mindset that causes it is important but difficult and a little terrifying.  

I love Kay's books.  His grasp of story is very strong, and his voices are compelling.  I'm off to read some Pratchett, though, because I need some more gentle humanism right now.  I'm a couple Pratchett books behind, so I can probably read a few powerful and slightly soul-bruising Kay books followed by some Pratchett.  Not a bad plan in a stressful time.

NOTE: For those of you who like to see book covers, check them out here.  My favorite is the top left (Canadian Hardcover).  No confusion about who the fourth person is; though I understand the desire for architectural symmetry.