Guy Gavriel Kay’s books are classified as fantasy but I think they fit better in the alternate history category. (Though fans of that genre might disagree.) Kay’s fantasy is distinguished more by what it lacks than what it offers: his books feature no witches, dwarves, elves, sorcerers, necromancers, spells, etc, indeed very little in the way of magic at all. What they do offer is interesting human characters and lots of action. The fantasy aspect comes in with his settings. In his books he creates highly fictionalized versions of real places in history. For example, his book A Song for Arbonne is really a tale of medieval Provence, complete with troubadours and courtly love. The Last Light of the Sun is set in an alternate 9th century Britain, with Erling warriors standing in for actual Vikings. He just takes the real settings and history, scrambles up the map, changes all the names to authentic-sounding alternatives, and writes a great story to go with it. I love it!
Only I didn’t love The Lions of Al-Rassan. Al-Rassan is medieval Spain, which has been carved up into a hodgepodge of Christian and Islamic fiefdoms, most of which are at war with one another (or if not actively at war, contemplating it). As is his habit, Kay has changed the names of these religions and made up different belief systems for them, but they are still easy to identify. He’s even created another group, the Kindath, to stand in for the Jews.
Maybe the problem is that medieval Spain was so mixed up that even the real history is difficult to follow. I just found myself completely confused by this book. I couldn’t keep any of the characters straight. The constantly shifting alliances meant that I also couldn’t keep track of who was on whose side (and there are about six different sides). The book provides a dramatis personae at the beginning, but even that didn’t help, because it only told whose side someone was on when the story began. I am usually pretty good at this kind of thing, and not easily put off by lots of characters with confusing names, but this book defeated me, and I couldn’t even finish it.
I believe that some of Kay’s earlier works do take a more traditional approach to fantasy. His Fionavar Tapestry trilogy is often described as “Tolkien-esque.” I haven’t tried those books. But I will continue to try his more recent works. I think he is evolving as a writer. It takes more than one bad experience to get me to abandon an author that I like as much as I have liked Kay.
(Book 39, 2007)
(I read enough of it to count it.)