Guy Gavriel Kay combines setting and characters for evokative storytelling in Lions of Al-Rassan. Review by Violet Kane

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Fans of Medieval Fantasy who seek a fresh twist that does not stray too far from tradition will be captivated by Kay's Lions of Al-Rassan.

For those of you who are not familiar with his work, Kay boasts heavyweight fantasy credentials: he served as co-editor of Tolkien's Silmarillion. Lions combines the essence of traditional fantasy with a fresh cultural spin. Kay sets his story in a fictional version of Islamic-ruled Medieval Spain. Some may term Kay's work "religious fantasy," others have dubbed it "fant-historical." Lions is light on magic, but rich on all the other amenities fantasy fans enjoy. Kay sets his tale amidst the tensions of three faiths based on Judaism, Christianity and Islam. While Kay makes no pretense about the inspiration behind these three belief systems, he does not dwell too long in the reality of their histories. He effectively takes us out of our preconceptions, detailing rather movements whose followers worship the moon, the sun or the stars. Three characters, one from each of these faith traditions, are brought together by the collision of these tensions. Jehane is a skilled physician, inheritor of her father's knowledge and practice. Rodrigo is a bold military commander and devoted family man. Ammar is a dashing warrior poet and, perhaps, the most subtly drawn hero in the history of fantasy fiction. They become friends, united by their desire to mute the political tensions, but divided by their separate loyalties. Ultimately, these friends face the steepest challenge to their friendship as political frictions put them into direct conflict with one another.

Kay's characters are among the most well-drawn in all of fantasy. In Lions Kay is at his best. Despite the historically-charged background conflicts, the reader does not get bogged down by the politics of these three faiths. Rather, Kay grounds the story, quite appropriately, on the three main characters. The descriptions are rich and luxuriant, but not overwritten. Perhaps Kay's most astonishing achievement is his skill for making traditional fantasy forms seem "classic" rather than cliched or overdone. Like much of Kay's work, underlying threads of mediterranean mythology and Greco-Roman literature pervade Lions. Kay's fantasy is much closer to "literature" on the scale of modern fiction than it is to "beach read." Expect a transforming journey, not just a page-turner.

With this book, Kay will delight fans of fantasy and of historical literature.

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Violet "Violanthe" Kane is the Webmaster and Founder of She is an editor of ARWZ Literary Zine and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Medieval studies.

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