Guy Gavriel Kay
Completed 12/7/2019, Reviewed 12/7/2019
This was my first book by Kay. At over five hundred pages, it’s one of the longest books I’ve read in a long time. I was dreading it at first, but as I got past the first fifty pages or so, I became enchanted by the prose. There are a lot of characters and city-states, and there is a lot of politics. Usually I lose my way in this type of book. But the prose was so glorious that the reading of it became easy and I didn’t have that hard of a time following the kings, the religions, the politics, and the warring. It helped that I read some reviews first so I didn’t go cold into the book. So I knew ahead of time that the setting is an alternative Medieval Spain, conquered by a people like the Moors, with the old Christian-like states pushed north, and a Jewish-like minority throughout.
The setup is fairly complex. The Asharites control about three-quarters of the peninsula. They are a desert people whose god is revealed through the stars and their prophet Ashar. Once united as Al-Rassan, the land has degraded down to a collection of city-states. Ammar ibn Khairan is an Asharite. He’s many things, including a poet, a kingly advisor, and an assassin. The Jaddites live in the north and some in the east. Rodrigo Belmonte is a military captain of a band of mercenaries working for one of the Jaddite kings. The Kindath live throughout Al-Rassan, but are generally quartered in ghettos, and are highly suspect by the Asharites. In the Jaddite territories, they are often slaves. Jehane bet Ishak is a doctor who treats all people. Through a series of unusual events, these three characters end up exiled to one of the Jaddite kingdoms where they become strong friends despite their religious differences in a world inching closer and closer to a holy war.
This book is really about relationships between people and their similarities and differences as a metaphor for how the world should get along. It is about love, honor, and respect in a world with too little of these. The complexity of the world and the relationships of these three main characters simply took my breath away. There are good guys and bad guys, but the point of view of the book is told from many people from the three religions and the different city-states, leaving a lot of moral ambiguity.
There are many featured characters besides the three main ones. Some of their names were similar so that made things a little hard to follow at times. However, Kay makes sure to restate who people are which made it a little easier to remember. They were all very well developed. No one seemed like a cardboard cutout.
My only complaint about the book is that it’s considered fantasy. There are two moons and one of Rodrigo Belmonte’s sons can see the future. But that’s about it. It’s really alternate history and it’s probably more appropriate to use the term speculative fiction than fantasy. But that’s really a minor point.
I give this book five stars out of five. I was completely absorbed in it. Everything about the book, the plot, the prose, the characters, the world-building, all combine to form one terrific novel. The ending was quite a surprise and quite devastating. This was one of those books where I had to chill after finishing. I really felt like had been immersed in a different world, and coming out of it required a conscious transition. Kay has some retractors, but a lot of people love him. I guess I’m now one of the converted. At some point, I’ll have to read Tigana, which is considered his best.