Kay's The Lions of al-Rassan is a high fantasy novel set in a place something like Spain around the the period of the First Crusade. The peninsula (al-Rassan) is ruled by a number of warring kingdoms, half of which arise from the desert and worship the stars; these are in the south and have the cultural markers of the Islamic kingdoms of Spain of the time. For example, they were loose white clothing and have a religious prohibition against alcohol, not always honored. The kingdoms of the north of the peninsula worship the sun, favor armored horsemen, and make a sign with the hands as a religious gesture.
But the wars are not just wars of religion, or at least not initially; the three northern kingdoms fight among themselves, and the southern kingdoms are descendants of a unified kingdom after assassinations and civil wars tore it apart.
Our three main figures are: Ammar ibn Khairan, poet, soldier, and assassin of the last khalif of the unified southern kingdom; Rodrigo Belmonte, leader of the best band of horseman, and formerly constable of one of the northern kingdoms until he was ousted in a power play, and Jehane, the daughter of the most famous doctor of the peninsula, and an important doctor in her own right. Kay despises zealotry and religious intolerance, and all three of these figures long for a peninsula where the more tolerant elements rule.
But the First Crusade means that zealotry and religious tolerance is on the rise. Kay's previous novel A Song For Arbonne has a similar conflict; it takes place in a France analogue at the time of the Albigensian crusade. That novel has all the zealots on one side, and the side of intolerance, unlike in the actual historical event of its model, loses. Here the zealots are on both sides, and our heroes and their allies feel the squeeze, especially since none of the three should get along. There is war all across the peninsula.
There is also romance. I thought Kay in the previous novel was very good at integrating the personal and the political, and I think he's very successful here as well. With so many more threads the exposition felt a little more cumbersome, and there were times it felt a bit static: one set piece after another. So I thought it was not quite as good as A Song For Arbonne, but I still thought it was very good.
This entered the house late last summer; I've read it (other than for its own very good sake) for the My Reader's Block Mount TBR Challenge. But by my standards eight months is hardly time to collect dust. I think my next book will have to come from somewhat deeper in the TBR pile...
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