Most alternate histories suggest what might have been if a key event had turned out differently. Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan is the first book in this genre I’ve read that asks you to ponder those sorts of possibilities based on what actually transpired.
It’s a brilliant achievement.
Kay’s setting is a lightly disguised version of medieval Spain. His iteration of the Iberian Peninsula has some new geographic contours and is looked down upon by two moons instead of one. There’s also a whiff of magic in the air. But Esperaña, as he names it, is clearly northern Spain, and Al-Rassan its southern half, with both regions populated by close analogues to real-world peoples and religions: Jaddites are essentially Christians who worship the sun; Asharites are Muslims who worship the stars; the Kindath are Jews who worship the moons.
But while Kay changed these groups’ names and objects of worship, he left their historical power dynamics unaltered.
The Lions of Al-Rassan takes place at a moment when the Asharite ascendency in the peninsula is on the wane. After a centuries-ago conquest, the resulting Khalifate (that splintered the “precarious kings of Esperaña” into mobile fiefdoms who “ruled on the move”) has fallen into decline. The true khalifs are long gone, and the last of a series of “puppet khalifs” dies at the beginning of the novel. Al-Rassan is a fragmented state now too, a collection of feuding city-states grasping at what remains of the Khalifate’s receding glory.
Esperaña’s kings have their petty quarrels as well. But with regular Asharite raids a thing of the past, the Jaddites in the north have regained stability and power. And their clerics have begun to agitate for a unified campaign to restore the rest of what was lost—a Holy War they’ve proclaimed the Reconquest.
The Kindath caught in the middle are unsure who to root for.
“Singing the sun god’s exultant chants of triumph,” Kay writes, “the Jaddites of Esperaña had slaughtered the Kindath through the centuries or, in generations slightly less bloodthirsty, had forced them to convert or made them slaves.” Conditions were sometimes better under the Asharites. “For the Kindath, treading lightly at all times, the expanding world of the khalifs had offered a measure of peace and fragile security. They paid the heretics’ tax … they were to worship the god and his sisters [the moons] in their fashion only behind closed doors; they were to wear blue and white clothing only … but there was a life to be found, and the enforcement of [these] laws varied widely.” The Asharites have their religious extremists too, however, and a victory for them in the coming conflict will inevitably mean a grisly loss for the Kindath.
Kay is at pains to show that neither of the dominant religions has a monopoly on barbarity. And some of the secular members of his cast commit similarly savage acts on the basis of shared history rather than faith. But the book also features characters who cross these religious and ethnic lines to form bonds of friendship and love.
A Kindath physician. A Jaddite soldier. An Asharite poet. These heroes and their companions form “odd conjunctions” that belie the historical hatreds that should have held them apart. “At certain moments,” one character reflects near the end of the book, “in the presence of [such friends] … it was actually possible to imagine a future for this peninsula that left room for hope. Men and women could change, could … give and take, each from the other … given enough time, enough goodwill, intelligence. There was a world for the making in Esperaña, in Al-Rassan, one world made of the two—or perhaps, if one were to dream, made of three. Sun, stars, and the moons.”
But history didn’t turn out that way. Nor does The Lions of Al-Rassan.
It’s not a perfect book. The early pacing lags as Kay gradually brings his protagonists together. And he indulges in some unnecessary authorial obfuscation. (Tricking the reader into thinking one character is in danger or dead when it’s actually another, or foreshadowing a momentous revelation only to cut away from the conversation after stating that something significant was said.)
But Kay’s prose is gorgeous, and The Lions of Al-Rassan is full of heart-wrenching scenes, some of which pack enough weight that I delayed reading them because I feared to learn how they’d conclude.
What I’ll remember most, though, is the sad resonance of his central theme. Jaddites, Asharites, and the Kindath—when they pray, they all look to the heavens. Different aspects, maybe, but the same firmament. So when they look down, why can’t they regard each other with a sense of shared wonder and understanding?
And why is it still difficult for many of us in the real world to do likewise?
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