This is one of those books I’ve read many times, along with some of Kay’s other books, and almost anything by Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible, High Tide in Tuscon, Pigs in Heaven, The Bean Trees) or Marge Piercy (especially Woman on the Edge of Time; He, She, and It; and the Eight Chambers of the Heart poetry collection) or bell hooks, Dionne Brand, and Adrienne Rich, a few Maeve Binchy books, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (among others), Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer, Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things, of course, but also her political stuff), Steven King’s The Stand, Richard Wagamese’s Keeper’n Me, all of Audre Lorde’s poetry and essays, Edwidge Danticatt, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kader Abdolah’s Een tuin in de zee, Toni Morrison, Thomas King, Marilyn Frye’s philosophy, and so many more books I’ve read over half a dozen times over the years and sometimes far more often. Some books tell a story so well (or tell such a good story, or both), or speak to me in some fundamental way about the world and how I live in it, that I go back again and again. (Also, I’m a real sucker for post-apocalyptic stuff, utopias and dystopias, that kind of thing.) Sometimes it’s a book that feels very deep and meaningful, and sometimes it’s just (!) a great story well-told (and some, like Kingsolver, manage to do those at the same time).
Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan falls into the category of “Books to Read When I Want to Read but Can’t Handle Anything Serious.” It’s a classic fantasy story, with more swords than sorcery, with a strong female protagonist and believable characters. It’s set in a world where women are not equal to men, and that inequality is taken for granted by the characters. For example, women suffer sexualised violence, especially in times of war, and have less political power than men have. But the difference between this and, say, Game of Thrones, is that the violence is not described in loving detail, and absolutely not glorified. The characters struggle with these facts of their world, and the people who commit atrocities are neither admired nor emulated. The multiple main characters are all striving to live good lives, and the drama comes from the ways in which their interests are incompatible. Men have friendships and fall in love, women have careers and make independent decisions, and while Kay bases his three cultures on Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, he does not privilege or demonise any of them.
The writing is somewhat stylised, with circling back and repetition, and I find that it works very well for this type of story. I complained in my last book review about the writer slipping into a trope, and I guess the same could be said of this book, in a different way. The fantasy genre usually rests on notions of honour and loyalty and chivalry, and Lions is no exception. I find it hard to fight all the time to hold these things in my mind, and Kay’s books are one of my “guilty pleasures” in this regard, where I just let go of that a bit as I read. When I read this book, I (mostly) suspend my critique of gender relations and just go with the flow. When I get pissed about the systemic gender inequality, my little “Suspension of Disbelief Voice” reminds me that the female lead is a doctor! And scorns riding sidesaddle! And chooses her own lovers! But then she wears a gown to a ball and all the boys are googly-eyed and I get pissed off again. It’s a process. J
The race thing is handled by having everyone be roughly the same colour. One group is “tanned” compared to the others, but race is a cultural marker rather than a power marker in this book. Some characters are gay or bi but there’s usually (although not always) a kind of askancy aside about how scandalous that is. None of the main relationships are same-sex.
I like this book for a few reasons, one of which is kind of teleological: I’ve read it so many times that I know exactly what is going to happen, and so it has a comforting familiarity for those times when I want to be entertained without being challenged. I like the characters and am interested in their motivations; the story has both absorbing detail and dramatic sweep; the boring battle scenes are kept to a minimum; and there is no easy ending where good triumphs over evil (often a really boring and disappointing ending, in my opinion).
Kay sometimes tries to be too clever, like he’s trying a bit too hard, and I think he should possibly give his readers a bit more credit, but this is a lovely escapist book and I will certainly keep re-reading it.
14 Sep 2015: Addendum: Just found the blog post I wanted to link to here to emphasise how much I appreciate that the female protagonist in this book did not fall into one of these trite Women-in-Fantasy Tropes!
The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. 1995. ISBN 0140243135.