The Books of 2020, #3: The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay
And I like it. A lot. Genuinely do not understand how this isn't already like a 6-part HBO miniseries, since, unlike some other authors we could name, dude tells the ENTIRE STORY IN ONE BOOK AND IS DONE, FULL STOP, there's almost no magic, no dragons... would be an easy and engrossing tale to tell.
That tale is basically a fictionalized, compressed retelling of the real-world Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula, aka Catholic Europe's slow retaking of Spain and Portugal from the Muslim powers that had conquered almost all of it.
Kay wisely chooses to "lightly base" rather than actually set his novels of this type on real world history, as it allows him to bend events to the needs of the plot and avoids dorks like, say, me, nitpicking him on every frickin' minor detail of historical accuracy.
That said, everything about the setting has a pretty direct analogy to our own history: Jaddites? Christians. Kindath? Jews. Asharites? Muslims. Esperana? Spain. Etc., and so on. If you know anything about the real history here, you know the gist of the background of this story. Hell, even the map at the front of the book of the fictional world is basically a map of Europe drawn by a not-particularly gifted child.
Having the world setting basically defined for him allows Kay to focus on the characters and the writing, and it's all very good, better than the fantasy/historical genre's average, for sure. The author is a real-world poet, so key characters are also poets (which also fits with the historical reality of the cultural high point that was Caliphate Spain under Muslim rule), and hey guess what: there's some pretty good poetry presented throughout.
The plot spans a good chunk of years and huge events, but fundamentally revolves around a love story, or stories, rather. There is the brilliant Kindath lady doctor, caught up in the wars of an increasingly intolerant age. She's torn in her affections between the noble, but married, lead warrior of Jaddite Esperana, and the finest poet and assassin of the Asharites. Much like our world, love across any of those interfaith boundaries is forbidden as well.
I'd argue that the "love" story between the two male protagonists is even more crucial to the story, and as affecting. It's not a romantic love, but a love between two men who see the high ability, the excellence of themselves in the other, and, more depressingly, what other futures could exist for them if their era and place didn't demand war of them.
Lastly, I'd argue that there is a love story between each of the main characters and the very land they inhabit; much like our own Al-Andalus was, Al-Rassan is a tolerant (by contemporary standards) polity in which all three cultures are, more or less, able to bloom to their highest levels, fed by the interplay between different beliefs and arts, etc.
The story plays out with these relationships sorting themselves out against a background of a huge cultural and political changing of the guards, with the scientifically and artistically backwards Jaddites reaching a peak of military prowess, and slowly grinding the more advanced, but decadent and infighting Asharite polities to dust before them. The Asharites are also being pressed from within by the extremely intolerant, purist branch of their mainstream religion. These folks want all the art, dancing, poetry and beauty of their lands overthrown in favor of brutally strict piety and endless war against all other faiths. Sound familiar?
Loves are lost, particularly as they all work towards a goal that each knows can only spell the final end of declining Al-Rassan, and that, whoever "wins", what follows will be different and, in many ways, can only be lesser than what came before.
For all of the battles and fighting and loss and violence that telling this tale involves, what stuck with me, as the reader, was how well Kay imbues the entire telling with just a strong sense of loss, both for the victors and the losers of any given event. That struggle is between these folks knowing what their duty is and what will be lost if they succeed in performing it.
It ends up making for a engrossing and affecting read. It gets my recommendation.