THE LION OF AL-RASSAN
Kay's recent work has built up fantasy worlds based on Mediterranean models: Tigana (1990) was modeled on Italy, A Song For Arbonne (1993) on Provence. Now, he takes as his template Moorish Spain in the last years before reconquest by the Christians. The story follows three major characters, representing the three peoples of Kay's setting, analogous to the Christians, Moors, and Jews in Spain. Rodrigo Belmonte and Ammar ibn Khairan are the leading generals of their respective nations, exiled for reasons of political expediency. They join forces in the service of a border city, leading mercenary troops and awaiting the recall to their homelands. Later, fanatics on both sides prepare a religious war that will inevitably pit Rodrigo and Ammar against each another. The two generals come to share a mutual respect; and Jehane bet Ishak, a skilled woman doctor whose life they've touched, fails in love with both of them. Political forces bring the two men into conflict, however, forcing Jehane to choose between them. Kay effectively plays the changes on the themes of love, duty, honor, and fate as the story moves slowly toward a resolution, with plenty of twists and surprises along the way. Meanwhile, the complex characterization and richly detailed settings create an unusually full portrait of an exotic society. The final pages step back from the action, leaving the reader with the impression that the novel's events have abruptly receded into some long-forgotten history. But other than the "alternate world" setting, with twin moons and an elaborately built-up history, the only "fantastic" element here (and not an especially prominent one) is the ability of one character to foresee the future. A notch below Kay's peak form, but still on a higher level of artistry than the work of almost any other current fantasy writer.