The Lions of Al-Rassan is an incredible book that’s inspired by the religious and political conflict that marked Moorish Spain. It follows several characters from three at-odds religious groups: the Kindath (based on Jews), Jaddites (based on Christians) and Asharites (based on Muslims.) Though the religions as described in the novel bear no real-life similarity to their analogous counterparts, and the particulars of history don’t entirely line up with the events described in the book, GGK’s alternate imagining still captures the ideological turmoil that was rampant among the groups.
Kay masterfully blends the large and small scale machinations and consequences of mistrust, bigotry, and ambition. He uses lyrical exposition to sketch the movements of armies or masses of people swayed by a shared viral sentiment, but his true focus is on a group of mercenaries that is comprised of powerful and influential individuals from the different factions who nonetheless form an instant camaraderie based on mutual respect. These people are Rodrigo Belmonte, a Jaddite captain of a band of highly trained and efficient Horsemen from his home province of Valledo; Ammar ibn Khairan, a poet, accomplished fighter, and advisor to King Almalik of Cartada, the most powerful of Asharite city-states in Al-Rassan; lastly, there is Jehane bet Ishak, a Kindath physician based out of a city in Al-Rassan that is under jurisdiction of Cartada but also pays tribute for protection to Valledo. These three and a host of secondary characters — who are no less important contributors to the emotional stakes and loyalty that bind the group — find their way to each other when in some fashion or another, each are banished from their respective homes and seek refuge in Ragosa, an up-and-coming power in Al-Rassan.
The Lions of Al-Rassan is heartbreaking, because though it’s fiction, it dances so close to reality, both historical and present. The religious tension as described persists — tragically — today, and while GGK doesn’t shy away from the larger implications of what happens when cultures go to war under the muddied causes of nationalism and religion, the gut punches of the story come from the interpersonal relationships of our heroes from different backgrounds and the choices that they make in light of their longstanding loyalties and beliefs, in spite of their genuine love and respect for one another. What really twists the knife is the idea that most of the people — our heroes included — who are affected by and drawn into these conflicts aren’t even themselves particularly religious, inclined to wage holy wars, but when the war is so all-encompassing that your cultural identity is at stake, doing nothing is no longer a choice.
I’d recommend this book to anyone, really. It was an engrossing read with all manner of base human emotions — love, hate, pride, loyalty — intertwined with more subtle and complex understandings and negotiations among intelligent, passionate people who see eye-to-eye on almost all of the governances of human behavior and political co-operation that should matter, and yet, they can’t find themselves on the same side.