In the peninsula which is divided between the three northern kingdoms of the former Esperaña (Jaloña, Valledo and Ruenda) and Al-Rassan in the south, an uneasy truce prevails. The people of the northern kingdoms generally follow the Jaddite religion, whereas those in Al-Rassan are Asharites, and the Kindath – wanderers – are not exactly welcome anywhere. Kay uses the history of Spain as a starting point for this novel – the Asharites are analogues of the Muslim Moors who occupied much of Spain during the early mediaeval period (early 8th century to the 15th century AD); the Jaddites analogues of Christians; and the Kindath of Jews.
The novel follows three main protagonists: Ammar ibn Khairan of Aljais, poet, soldier and diplomat, who has for many years been the right-hand man of King Almalik of Cartada, and is notorious throughout the peninsula for this and for being the man to have killed the last khalif of Silvenes; Rodrigo Belmonte, “the Captain” of Valledo, consummate soldier and tactician, formerly constable of Valledo; and Jehan bet Ishak, daughter of a physician and a physician herself, in the Al-Rassan town of Fezana, which is close enough to Valledo that they pay tribute annually to the king, Ramiro. On a day which afterwards comes to be known as The Day of the Moat, all three are caught up by the carnage which ensues, and thereafter their paths through the next year or so become entwined while all three are in the service of King Badir of Ragosa.
Summarising the plot would take a long time – the novel is nearly 600 pages long in the paperback edition I have, and a lot goes on – but the story roughly charts the beginning of the downfall of Al-Rassan (as Al-Andalus fell at last to the Christian Reconquista) as seen by Ammar, Rodrigo, Jehane and others of their company. For those who’ve read Tigana, Kay uses a young Jaddite soldier, Alvar, new to Rodrigo’s company, as an introduction to the politics and the wider realm; like Devin in Tigana, Alvar is young and at first a little naive and overwhelmed by what he sees and experiences. The characters are very well drawn, having their own beliefs and reasons for acting as they do: there are no out-and-out villains – just people with opposing views, people who panic, people who fear – though Geraud de Chervalles, a High Cleric of Jad from Ferrieres (France) is perhaps the most hissable. My favourites are Jehane and Ammar – I find Rodrigo a little too good to be believable – but I do love Ishak and Eliane, Jehane’s parents, and her relationships with them both. Jehane is believably competent, interestingly around thirty and unmarried, and, as a feminine viewpoint on the action, realistic in context. She’s not perfect, thankfully, since she’s a bit prickly, and quick-tempered, a bit stubborn, and not always sure of herself (except in a medical context). Ammar is one of my literary crushes – he’s extremely competent, very intelligent, and conflicted about what he’s done and what he will do in the future.
Kay examines personal honour, religion, courage and loyalty through his large cast of characters; the novel is written in the third person and allows the reader insight into the thoughts of many characters, from our main protagonists to Queen Ines of Valledo, Yazir ibn Q’arif of the Majriti, Alvar, Garcia de Rada, and others. Although Kay uses the three religions of Jad, Ashar and Kindath as analogues of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, there is nothing in common with those three religions – it allows Kay to examine the differences between peoples professing different religions, and who make religion a means of discrimination. The Kindath, for example, although heavily taxed and subject to restrictions, can live freely in Al-Rassan and practise their religion (though Kay says very little about the religious rites of any of the faiths), whereas in the Jaddite kingdoms there is active hatred for them: Jehane mentions that Queen Vasca, whose island is now venerated as a holy place of pilgrimage for many Jaddites, once said that Kindath were animals to be burned from the face of the earth. Mazur ben Avren, chancellor to King Badir, is a Kindath, and could certainly never have attained such a position with a Jaddite king; however, he is distrusted by the devout Majriti, and the Muwardi mercenaries who serve in Al-Rassan.
The Lions of Al-Rassan poses less troubling questions about loyalty than Tigana does, though it’s clear that friendship can transcend, for a while, boundaries of religion and patriotism – however, not for ever. Hard choices have to be made, and no-one is entirely free to follow the desires of their hearts. Kay writes evocatively, creating a sense of regret for the past, and the ending of an era which his characters see coming but are powerless to avert.
“[Badir] was thinking of how kings died, of how their glory came and lingered a while, and went. Like the taste of this good wine, he thought. This gift of Ammar ibn Khairan, who had killed his own king a little time ago. What did a king leave behind? What did anyone leave behind? And that led him circling back to the words they’d heard recited after dinner, while lying at ease on their couches in the banquet room with the tame stream running through it, rippling quietly, a murmurous background to the spoken words…”
p222 (1995 UK paperback edition)
It’s moving and involving book, perhaps more satisfying in some ways than Tigana (with which I always associate it), since the ending is less bleak, though less ambiguous in its presentation of its characters.
Published by: HarperCollins (1995)