"My faith? I would put it differently, my lord. I would say, my history ... Our sages, our singers, the khalifs of the eastern world. ... Every people has its zealots. They come, and change, and come again." (p. 457)
Though labelled as 'fantasy', this is not a typical fantasy novel. No magic, no mythical beasts, no overt action by gods: no great prophecies to be fulfilled, no quest, no plot tokens. The Lions of Al-Rassan is, instead, an alternate history: Kay's approach to writing about medieval Spain, with its complex interactions of Moor and Jew and Christian, by transplanting the situation to a world with two moons where the Asharites, the Kindath and the Jaddites pace out the measures of an uneasy dance.
If I knew the history of medieval Spain better I'd have found more layers in this novel -- which is not to say that it doesn't work without in-depth knowledge, because it's a powerful novel about faith and pragmatism, loyalty and honour. Kay focusses on three protagonists: Rodrigo Belmonte, Jaddite soldier; Amman ibn Khairan, Asharite poet and diplomat; Jehane bet Ishak, Kindath physician, who finds herself fascinated by both men and by the precarious friendship between them. There are a host of other memorable characters, including Belmonte's wife (the redoubtable Miranda) and Alvar de Pellino, a young soldier whose loyalties are sorely strained by the exigencies of war. Kay's desert zealots, the Muwardi, are a weak point, though: they're primitive, unlikeable, credibly motivated but without redeeming features.
Kay doesn't attempt to disguise the historical origins of his story. Why transplant it to an imagined world? Perhaps to avoid offence; perhaps for the freedom to invent viewpoint characters and rewrite incidents as they should have happened.
The Lions of Al-Rassan starts slowly and with a little too much info-dumping, but once the protagonists had been introduced I was eager to see how their lives would entwine. Kay's style is resonant, poetic without being overwritten, very visual. He has a taste for misdirection (or at least letting the reader go along with the characters' perceptions) which vexed me slightly at the end of the novel. Overall, though, extremely readable and well-written.