I have wanted to read one of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books for a long time–so I’m tagging this review as #Reading the TBR for Cannonball Bingo. It’s been ages since I did a review, but what with Bingo starting I’m a little more inspired. And also because I feel like writing this review might diminish the extreme book hangover I have right now.
I’m a big fan of both fantasy and history, and people have recommended Kay’s books to me multiple times. Yet somehow, I never actually read them. They weren’t available as e-books, for example, and I’m determined to buy as few hard copies as possible until I have a permanent residence somewhere. (My husband is not so conscientious, but one of us has to be.) So I was delighted when I found them as e-books in my library’s Overdrive. Lots of other people were delighted too; I had to wait ages. Was this book worth the wait? Was it ever.
I am in love with everything about this book. The writing is wonderful. It doesn’t call attention to itself, but it doesn’t just narrate, it communicates. Kay’s storytelling style is almost that of an omniscient narrator: there is a distinct voice that does not change character-by-character, but you are always in a distinct POV for every scene. He’s not afraid to give you a POV only once; he chooses whomever is appropriate for the scene. By including such a broad cast of characters, Kay creates a story that feels almost effortlessly epic, even without considering the scope of the novel.
This book is about the fall of a civilization. Not civilization in general (though some of his characters might think that), but a distinct civilization: that of Al-Rassan, where poetry and beauty once reigned supreme, now reduced and threatened and grasping at cruelty to stay afloat. That’s it. That’s the plot. And it doesn’t need anything more.
The world of Al-Rassan and its surroundings is distinctly, recognizably that of early medieval Spain (Al-Andalus/Moorish Spain). Kay creates a world that evokes the reconquest of Spain through its names (Esperaña, Al-Rassan) and its religions (based on Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, though the gods these peoples worship are the sun, the stars, and the moon(s) instead of more traditional deities). Wikipedia tells me that the characters are also vaguely based on real and/or literary characters, but I didn’t necessarily know that going in and it certainly didn’t diminish the story in any way for me. I will also give the caveat that, beyond teaching basic Western Civ and reading the Song of Roland as a teenager, I know little about this historical period. And that’s fine, because this book is a fantasy. It is fantasy in that the names and plot are made up, but it possesses the weight of good historical fiction (Pillars of the Earth might be a good comparison in this regard–I don’t read that much historical fic actually). But there is no magic to speak of. One character has a sort of prophetic gift, and that is the most fantastical element in the whole book. So if you want elaborate magic systems, this isn’t the book for you; Kay has built an elaborate world instead.
The story centres around several main characters, most notably Jehane, a Kindash (read: Jewish) physician living in Al-Rassan, daughter of a renowned physician who was blinded by a king. She becomes embroiled in Al-Rassan’s fate when on the same day she meets the Jaddite (i.e. Spanish/Frankish Christian) cavalry commander Rodrigo Belmonte and the Asharite (e.g. Muslim, specifically Spanish Muslim in this instance) poet and political figure Ammar ibn Khairan. These two men represent polar extremes of personality, religion, and culture, and yet they cannot help but respect each other–even knowing that, at some point, they will likely be on opposite sides of a battlefield. Jehane is thus a perfect intermediary, admiring and respecting these men while knowing that both their cultures have treated her own people with hatred and wanton cruelty for centuries.
Religion is a driving force in this book, both the personal beliefs that characters hold and how these religions have shaped their cultures. The topic is not treated with undue respect, but neither does Kay dismiss the power that beliefs have on these characters. (As a side note: one of my favourite minor characters is an Esperañan queen, Ines, who is extremely devout and also really enjoys sexy times with her husband. Kay expertly straddles the line between empathy and humor in Ines’ few scenes and in her subsequent small character arc).
The scale, the scope, the world that Kay has created–all these combine to form something beautiful and evocative and meaningful. All stories have meaning, but this may be the first time that I wept for the slow death of a civilization, not just the deaths of characters (though I wept for that reason too). Al-Rassan is not perfect: this is not the fall of some utopian Eden. The characters know this, even the ones who fight for its survival. They fight for memory, for poetry, for beauty, for some semblance of humanity amidst the darkness and hatred that threatens to envelop them all. And I fought with them every step of the way.