The Lions of Al-Rassan - a fantasy Inspired by Medieval Spain
Guy Gavriel Kay has written many good books but my favorite is The Lions Al-Rassan. As always with Kay the writing is superb, the world feels completely real, and the characters are compelling. Religion, politics, poetry, and three memorable characters are all about to collide and be torn apart as Al-Rassan is poised to fall under a weak king. Centuries ago the Asharites, fanatic worshipers of the Stars, came across the sea from their desert land and conquered Al-Rassan. Ammar ibn Khairan is a poet, warrior, and an advisor to kings. He is also an assassin on behalf of those kings. But Al-Rassan cares more for commerce these days than faith and the desert fanatics see them as little better than infidels and consider Ammar one of the worst. Rodrigo Belmonte is a noted general of one of the three Jaddite kingdoms that border Al-Rassan to the north. The Jaddite horsemen, followers of the Sun, are restless and want more glory, more land, and to exterminate the Kindath, who worship the Moons, and are tolerated in civilized Al-Rassan. Jehane bet Ishak, a Kindath physician, finds herself caught between gathering armies and two great men as the three of them are thrown together one fatefull night just before their world crumbles.
Shocking events throw the three together one night and then they each find their way to a neutral city state where they live out the last months of peace as exiles. The two men quickly become friends and Jehane falls in love with both although neither is a wise choice. While neither man is particularly devout they both answer to Kings who are under pressure to commit to religious crusades and as they say, no matter which way the wind blows rain will fall on the Kindath. The pressure escalates until the two men are called home to lead their respective armies into war. For Jehane it doesn't matter which side wins the war because she will lose either way.
Perhaps it is cruel to remind fans that Kay has no fear of killing off main characters but it is that poignant climactic moment, and they way he handles it, that makes Lions so memorable. Kay starts with a bang, then gives us laughter and friendship before driving the pressure back up for the final battle. There is so much riding on that final fight, not just for Ammar, Rodrigo, and Jehane, but for their three cultures and religions. Admittedly there is very little "fantasy" in the story. But I cried. That is why the Lions of Al-Rassan is my favorite Kay book.
The audiobook version is narrated by Euan Morton whose performance is well rated on Audible.