Monday, 17 October 2016

The Lions of Al-Rassan

TL;DR: I enjoyed it, but it is poisonous when considered carefully. As are so many others. But as a fine exemplar of this-kind-of-novel, its also a fine exemplar of poisonousness.

The Goodreads people liked it. And wiki has an example, from which I'll quote a bit that annoyed me:
The Lions of Al-Rassan is a work of historical fantasy by Guy Gavriel Kay... based upon Moorish Spain... the relationships between the three peoples: the Kindath (analogous to the Jews), the Asharites (analogous to the Muslims), and the Jaddites (analogous to the Christians), although the religions of the Kindath, Asharites, and Jaddites, as described in the novel, bear no relation to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.
What annoyed me is that it is like Moorish Spain, and contains peoples, as wiki says, analogous to historical peoples, and yet their bloody names bear no relationship. So at the start of the book, when you're trying to work out who is who, you're constantly flipping back and forth, to the "index of characters", to the map, and so on; trying to remember who is who. I'm not asking for the bloody "Kindrath" to be called the Jews - that would tie them too closely - but couldn't they be something that would help you remember? And so on with the others. It isn't even done consistently. The Spain bit is "Esperana" and the old Jew is Ishak; the A-rabs are all "bin" and the Jews are all "ben" and the Spaniards all have those funny accents above their "n"s, the Frogs have "de" and so on.

Here's a review that I agree with quite a lot, except I actually enjoyed the book.

Why is the world-map clearly a map of Europe, except somewhat blurred? Why does the Tagus river basin become the wasteland of the Tagra? Though that I can kind of excuse, since it provides some convenience to the narrative.

And why do the peoples "bear no relation to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity"? (Although it isn't true: they do bear a relationship: just not a close one). The book would work just as well if they did indeed bear a close relationship. Come to that (spoiler alert!) what about Diego and his gift. It jars. It isn't needed. It is a complete outlier in the world of the book; an anomaly.

Let's take a brief break from the whinging to say what I liked about it. After all, after being offered this as "read this instead of Game of Thrones" I did; and I enjoyed it. Anyone vaguely familiar - as I am - with the history of Spain will be pleased to be reminded of it; perhaps more so if - like me - you don't know enough to be jarred. The settings are interesting, the characters are all noble, heroic, and beautiful. And they have lots of sex and its always wonderful and they're always beautiful; and never get pregnant except when they want to. There's a complex plot that interlocks nicely - perhaps a little too nicely, ah, Carruthers, it makes me suspicious that this isn't perhaps actual real life.

Enough niceness. What of the poison? It is of two kinds. The first is pervasive in books like this, so in a way hardly deserves mention: only the main characters matter. Everyone else can die in huge numbers in hideous ways unmourned. By which I mean that the author is happy to slaughter these (admittedly fictional) people merely to move the story along or to elict our sympathy. Example: after the raid in which Diego gets his head bashed in, the book needs - well, actually, it doesn't need at all; it just wants, for reasons perhaps simply of emotional manipulation - Ishak to save him dramatically, whilst Jehane looks on in awe. So everyone else there has to have died. Had they been badly wounded, she'd have to have been off helping them, and that would have been dramatically inconvenient.

And the second is the way... I find this hard to say accurately or comprehensibly. The way the characters put honour above common sense. The way their fine sensibilities are more important than anything else. That probably makes no sense, or is unconvincing. The main example is Ammar. He is forced to choose between serving Ramiro, or helping "his own people". He makes the wrong - but setup as "honourable" - choice; and by his actions he prolongs the war of reconquest from a few years to decades. The worst possible war is a well balanced one; anyone with any kind of sympathy for the people is obliged to choose the stronger side (with qualifications, of course) so it can win quickly. There is not the least hint of that as a problem in the book; instead, the death of millions and the sacking of cities gets a few words, but chiefly so the main characters can look sorrowful.

As a minor niggle, the astonishing skill of the old physician Ishak is implausible in the terms it is described, within its world. And in its relation to our world, well, trepanning is commonplace, not unknown. Didn't the author think of that?

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