Books & Booze: The Lions of Al-Rassan
Warning: this edition of Books & Booze contains Stage 9 Book Adoration
Let’s just get this out of the way, and then maybe we can level with each other.
I loved The Lions of Al-Rassan.
Now, if you have a problem with that,
you can meet me outside in three minutes and I’ll introduce you to my wrath via a broken beer bottle, okay? too bad.
Al-Rassan was my first Guy Gavriel Kay. And I know that Kay’s style isn’t for everyone. I bought Al-Rassan with some trepidation. Those who dislike Kay dislike him with fervor—but not the rabid kind that I can side-eye and brush off. Instead, they invoke the dreaded “wordy” label and comment on Kay’s lack of (gasp!) fantasy elements. This seemed to require some attention, at least. At the same time, the blurb wasn’t exceptionally enticing. However, when I remembered that my feeling toward this blurb can be universally applied to all blurbs, I found my backbone. Reassured, and backed up by the belief that it would be good for me to read some of the bigger names in the genre that I hadn’t yet been exposed to, I cracked open my Kindle.
Fast-forward a couple weeks . . .
If this is a wordy book that hardly qualifies as fantasy, then, Tolkien smite me, I will forever insult elves while wallowing in delicious word goodness. And I will be perfectly content.
In hindsight, this makes perfect sense because my own writing leans in this direction and, as a reader, I’ve always loved historical fiction. That I would enjoy Kay’s alternative historical settings that are light on the magic seems only natural.
But where’s the booze?? Yes, I hear you and your silent, desperate screams. Patience, kiddos, we’re almost at that point.
First, I shall detail a bit about why I loved The Lions of Al-Rassan.
- The language. Yep, give me all the words. Believe me, I understand the pain that excessive wordiness can create, but it all depends on how those words are employed. A book that is consistent in its word-richness and how those words are used to develop the story and a natural narrative voice—well, that book can be beautiful. And this one is.
- The story. Understanding the story of Al-Rassan is a bit like, if I may indulge in what I thought was a rather clever bit of imagery, watching reverse origami. It unfolds so perfectly, at precisely the right time and in precisely the right way, revealing and concealing all at once.
- The characters. Sure, they’re all competent and possess good morals, which some readers might see as a problem. But I’m not sure I have ever cared that much about that many characters. However Kay managed it, he made me feel deeply for people who exist in his imagination. This doesn’t happen often so I think I’m allowed to relish it when it does.
- On top of all that, there is no winning in this book. There’s a fatalistic bent to this story that Kay establishes early on, and despite what I might wish for, I knew I was hoping against hope. Sure, it’s sad, but it’s a great way to read a book.
In short, this book worked for me on every conceivable level while also somehow becoming greater than its parts.
As I neared the end of Al-Rassan, I began to think about what kind of beer would work with this book. Something a bit spicy, a bit exotic; something that evoked hot sun shining on walled cities, desert sands, and warring kingdoms. I settled on a saison, which is a style of ale that originated on farms in the French-speaking part of Belgium. Saisons are usually bright, fruity, spicy, and refreshing, qualities that seemed to mesh with the story. I can imagine Rodrigo Belmonte and Ammar ibn Khairan drinking a saison late into a warm summer night as the stars come out to play.
I chose a saison from Allagash Brewing. It was a gorgeous golden color with plenty of tiny bubbles rising from the bottom and a small but crisp, clean, white head. The haziness of the beer when poured lent itself well to the rich, golden hue. So far? Spot on. I was congratulating myself on my choice at this point.
And the flavor?
Citrusy. Peppery. A bit spicy. Enough wheat-y flavor to give it some depth. Enough hops to give it bite without overwhelming. A dry finish. All in all, refreshing and well-balanced with a pleasant aftertaste that was neither cloying nor bitter. This is one of those beers that goes down easy on a hot day. Best of all, the head left a beautiful lacy pattern on my glass, an elegant nod to the way this book has since lingered in my subconscious.
While this beer made me think of sunlight on gold domes and horses pounding across empty land, while it was bright and a bit exotic, I think in the end The Lions of Al-Rassan requires something that strives for more complexity to match the richness of the story Kay has woven together. Kay’s characters and the depth of emotion he draws from them—and, therefore, from this reader—demand more. Ultimately, the easy-drinking nature of this saison was perhaps its weakness.
Have a suggestion for a beer I should try reading with? Sound off in the comments!