Page count: 592
Time to read: 6 or 7 hours over 2 days
The Lions of Al-Rassan is a fantasy novel set in pseudo-Europe, in a time roughly equivalent to the late 10th Century AD. The national and political situation is roughly based on the occupation of Spain by the Moors, and the retaking of the lands held by the occupiers.
Jehane bet Ishak is a doctor who finds herself caught up in the sweeping politics of the day. Her fate becomes entwined with that of Ammar ibn Khairan of Aljais, the adviser to the King of Al-Rassan, and that of Rodrigo Belmonte, a captain of the kingdom on Valledo (formerly a duchy of Esperaña). With me so far? All three find themselves exiled from their homes and meet again in the city of Ragosa, whilst they shape and are shaped by the unstoppable consequences of faith.
Each of the main characters follows a different faith, which are roughly analogous to Chrsitianity, Islam, and Judaism. The Esperañans (and their fellow pseudo-Europeans) are Jaddite, who worship the God-behind-the-sun Jad. The pseudo-Middle Easterners are Asharite, who worship the stars of Ashar. And the despised and wandering Kindath acknowledge the God but primarily worship his twin moon sisters. Despite being really obvious, this was a fairly clever move by Kay to be able to discuss the religious hysteria of the day without actively offending any part of his audience. He still makes mistakes though.
Given that the book hinges on the differences between these three faiths, surprisingly little exposition is given to their natures or details. We know that the Kindath are hated - in fact, they even suffer from what's know as the blood libel that was claimed of the Jews - there is no information as to why. At all. The other two faiths similarly suffer, and I was uncomfortable with the level of fanaticism shown by the Muwardi (Asharite) tribesmen in particular, who seemed to be pretty lazy Islamist bogeymen stereotypes. On the other hand, the corrupt and cynically manipulative Jaddite clergy were pretty spot on for what I know about the Church at the time, so maybe I'm just being over-sensitive about things I know less about.
The plot is fast-paced and compelling, and the descriptions are very vivid and well done. I've always felt that Kay tends to be much less good with his main characters than he is with his minor ones, and I think that's true here too - the minor characters are much more interesting than the main three. I did care about Jehane, Rodrigo and Ammar, but they could all have done with being a bit less perfect and beautiful and a bit more flawed and realistic. Also, despite hints of the fluid sexuality of Ammar, that was never really seen at all, and the nature of the relationship between Rodrigo and Ammar didn't really feel as well-developed as I think the author intended it to be.
That said, this was a very enjoyable read, and I am glad I was persuaded to keep it. On a scale of 1 to 5, it definitely deserves a 4.