Saturday, October 04, 2008

I am Kay, Hear Me Roar

When is an allegory not an allegory?

When it is so direct that there is no room for interpretation. Or, alternately, when there does not seem to be a purpose to it. If the map is the territory, then there is no allegory, simply a cipher.

I have finished reading "The Lions of Al-Rassan" by Guy Gavriel Kay, and while it is thoroughly satisfying, I find myself still scratching my head. He has invented a new world for this book, but it is so close to our own in so many ways that I'm not sure why he didn't just set it on Earth. After some pondering I have a few theories.


I need to get the religious question out of the way before I can focus on anything else, so here goes:

You should be able to tell that this is Earth before reading the first word of the story. Like any good fantasy, the book opens with a map that shows the countries, seas, and major cities that will be addressed in the story. It is immediately obvious that we are looking at Spain: from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Pyrenees, it's all there. This is inset in a map of - what else? - Europe, depicting the course of Northern Africa, France, the Italian peninsula, all the lands bordering the Mediterranean up to the edge of the Middle East.

Except, everything's name has changed. Spain is Al-Rassan, France is Ferrieres, Italy is Batiara, and so on. If you stare at the map for a few seconds, you'll realize that Italy is shorter than it is in our world, but that only serves to emphasize how similar everything else is.

A few chapters are enough to establish where we are: in Spain, at the start of the reconquista. This world has three different religions. Please see if you can identify which each stands for.

The Asharites hail from a desert religion, and still maintain a nomadic iconology. Their fiercest warriors wear veils over their faces. They pray several times a day, facing their spiritual homeland when they do so; they are called to prayer in a loud and public way. Most names associated with this religion begin with "Al": "Al-Rassan", "Almalik", "Al-Fontina", etc. Surnames are set off with "ibn" as in "Ammar ibn Khairan" or "Husari ibn Musa". This faith has conquered a large part of the known world; they allow other faiths to continue operating, but require them to pay special taxes; partly because of this, many subjects convert. They revere a messenger of the one God, but do not worship him. Although the core values of the religion can seem stark and ascetic, there has been a flowering of art and culture in many lands ruled by them.

The Kindath have no homeland. Spread in a diaspora through the world, they continue to follow their religion, but are the frequent targets of persecution and violence. Notwithstanding these obstacles, many individuals have risen to become prominent doctors, merchants, or even advisors. They are accustomed to moving every few centuries when countries kick them out. Currently, they are forced to wear blue and white clothing to mark their religious identity. The men are named "Something ben Someone", while the women are named "Something bet Someone".

The Jaddites were once the dominant faith in the peninsula before Ashar conquered them. They have held on to a slice of territory, and have started to wax as Ashar wanes. They are famed for their powerful mounted knights, and recently have embarked on a crusade striking at the heart of the Asharite homeland. The Jaddites are generally intolerant of other religions, believing theirs to be the one true faith, and can be even crueler to the Kindath than the Asharites. The Jaddites honor relics. They have a particularly close relationship between church and state, with clerics guiding policy and pressing them to holy war.

Okay, you have five minutes to solve the mystery of what real-world faiths these correspond to. Ready? ... Pencils down. All right, good!

Now you may be able to understand my confusion: if you're going to co-opt this degree of detail about religions, why not just, y'know, use our own? Just one or two hints would have given even casual readers enough to "decode" the meaning. When you reach five hints, it starts to get a little insulting: doesn't the author think I've figured it out by now? When you reach twenty, it's just perplexing: what's he getting at, and why?

To my mind, the obvious reason to have this sort of coding is so that you can speak truths that might otherwise be rejected immediately. Sometimes this happens from a polemical agenda: you don't want to get in trouble by writing about how, say, Muslims are bad, so instead you write a fable about, I dunno, stoats, and bury your message in there. That isn't going on here; while the three faiths are very distinct, Kay goes to lengths to show the best each has to offer. The other motivation might be anti-polemical: by avoiding loaded terms like "Christian", Kay can make a statement about our own world's prejudice and dark history of religious conflict; this way, people can see the situation with fresh eyes and accept the underlying philosophy in a way that would not be possible if they felt personally assaulted. Except, again, I don't think anyone will be able to read this book without mentally substituting "Christian" everywhere they read "Jaddite," so I'm not sure how far this gets him.

On a related note, I'm not sure what genre to place this book in. My first instinct is to say "Fantasy," but I have a hard time backing that up: there is no magic at all, and the world is identical in every important respect to ours. Other than the different names and the fact that they have two moons instead of one, there's nothing separating this from a historical novel set in medieval Spain. As my previous post noted, modern fantasy has a very strong bond with medieval Western Europe, so that may be why I make this association. If it isn't fantasy, what is it? I think we need to give up our genre yardstick on this one... it's basically historical fiction for a history other than ours.

Okay... that all sounds very complaining, but I didn't mean it to be. I'm not opposed at all to this technique, just too dumb to figure out what it means.

The book itself is quite well written. In particular, Kay creates some really amazing characters. People like Rodrigo Belmonte make a huge impact when they first appear, and just continue growing deeper and more complex as we see more of them. Kay also pulls off the fine trick of having characters truly evolve and change over the course of the book, most notably in the relationship between Belmonte and Ammar, but also for Alvar, Jehane (and her father), and Husari.

Jehane is just one of several very well-written female characters. After your cast of characters passes a certain count, you are pretty much obligated to represent both sexes, but too often male authors relegate females to the land of pure stereotypes: either some feminine ideal, or (the easy way out) making her a "tomboy" and then writing her just like a male character. The women in "Lions" are generally strong figures in their male-dominated societies, independent and undeniably women.

Another rare thing Kay does well: insert poetry into the novel. This is the first book of his I've read, and I'm very curious whether this is normal for him. I'm not well versed in verse, so I can't comment on its quality, but I did like it, and even more appropriate, felt it was authentic. Poetry teases and hints, providing meaning buried beneath layers of words.

Speaking of hints, Kay repeats an interesting (and occasionally maddening) trick: he will start a new section that follows a character, and only use pronouns to describe them for several pages. We are left trying to puzzle out who, exactly, we are watching. Often something momentous happens early on - they are killed, say, or captured, and we are left hanging, uncertain which of a half-dozen candidates this is. It's an extremely effective way to build tension, especially in the devastating final two chapters. Occasionally it feels cheap, in a television-special kind of way, when we are left thinking something important has happened, just to find that it's something else entirely.

The plot is surprisingly thick and sprawling; I can think of several authors who would have easily spun this out over three books or more in a series, but Kay packs it all in one moderate tome without making it feel too squeezed. An incredible amount happens in the book: wars are feigned, started, lost, and won; several exciting battles unfold; one of the most complicated romantic situations I've seen plays out across several years (I think it's technically a "love pentagon", but could be overlooking a node); atrocities are committed and punished; kings fall and rise; alliances between individuals and nations broken and forged; and a good dozen or so characters find their personal redemption. Wow!


I think that Kay is doing something kind of subversive here: setting up an exciting story about the conflict between religions, then positing that both conflict and religion are wrong. He gives us some exciting battles early on where lots of people die.... granted, the opening slaughter in Cartada is sickening, but the bandit battle for Ragosa's parias (sp?) is one of the most entertaining skirmishes I've read recently. After the stunning second slaughter in Ortiz, though, who would dare say that there is glory in war? The ruthlessness of the attack, and Kay's prolonged focus on the grief and suffering it causes, seems designed to make pacifists of us all.

Because of this, I can't decide how I feel about Kay rescuing Diego from the brink of death. Oh, don't get me wrong: it felt like a gift when I read that part of the story, and I was happy to have him back; best of all, Kay makes it clear that this is a truly exceptional situation. Still, it has the effect of releasing the amazing tension of the chapter, and in the process it is transformed from a universal point (war is bad) to a more specific and meaningless one (ben Yonannon is a great surgeon).

I'm hesitating whether to even address the second point, about religion, because I'm so unclear on what Kay's going for here. I think our best hint comes towards the end when the leader of the Muwardis remembers the teachings of the wandering Kindath. This Kindath believes that there are multiple worlds, each with its own faith and gods. None of them are "real"; all worlds are merely reflections of the one original world, and all gods are different manifestations of the one true God.

First of all: holy shades of Anathem, Batman! Kay, in a one-paragraph throwaway, seems to be touching on the territory that Stephenson spent a mega-novel exploring. It's so casual and out of hand, though, that I don't know whether we're meant to accept it. And if we do, are we supposed to believe that Earth is one of the many imperfect worlds? If so, then this seems to be presenting a straightforwardly humanist message: the old saw that all religions are basically the same, all different paths to the same goal, etc. On the other hand, is Earth the one original world, home of the one true God? This seems to place the argument in an entirely different plane: all the "worlds" the Kindath spoke of were novels, each written from the perspective of Earth but not Earth itself, none of them containing religious truth but all pointing the way back to original religion. One argument is moral, the other literary.

Oh, and regarding the final duel: I finally figured out that Rodrigo had died when they receive word that "Belmonte" had taken Cartada. I might have fallen for it if it hadn't been for that "20 years later" bit, but as it was I immediately thought it had to refer to Fernan or Diego, at which point it seemed clear that Rodrigo was gone. That said, for some reason I still assumed that Alvar had married Jehane. This was at least partly wishful thinking, since I really wanted that match to happen. I have no regrets at all about the way the book ends, though. There is sadness and loss, as in the real world, but most characters end up where we want them to, and even Rodrigo has achieved everything he wanted in life: immortality for himself, and a fine legacy for his sons.


This has been an odd book in more ways than one, but that's a good thing - I don't want to ever become so comfortable in my genres and messages that I don't accept new offerings. Not sure yet what and when I'll read next, but it's good to have another talented writer on my radar.

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