The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
On the cover of my copy of The Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy Gavriel Kay is named as a "master storyteller". Tough praise to live up to, but Kay nails it with this novel. His prose is liquid smooth; The events of the book just unfold so naturally that I was able to just get caught up in the flow of events and completely enjoy the ride. I've been a fan of Kay since reading Tigana a few years ago, and this book reminded me of Tigana in many ways.
Kay places the events of the novel in a fictional medieval Spain. The peninsula is fractured into a bunch of small kingdoms and cities rife with instability. I think that by using a world that the reader already is slightly familiar with Kay saved himself from having to do lots of world building. Thanks to that, the novel focused more on the central characters, and didn't have the large information dumps that plague lots of other epic fantasies.
The characters are what make this a great novel. With a fairly large cast of characters, and rotating viewpoints, Kay creates characters that are extremely believable. From Alvar the young warrior, Ammar, aide to a king, Rodrigo, captain of an elite cavalry unit, and Jehane, a female doctor Kay gives a lot of glimpses into each character's goals and motivations. Their goals and motivations are often in conflict with one another, making for some great drama.
Kay also makes great use of cultural and social conflicts to add to the story. These conflicts parallel conflicts in our own world, and give the novel a degree of relevance that I don't often see in the genre. These conflicts also force many characters into tough choices throughout the novel. Choosing over love, country, ethnicity and family are just a few examples of the hardship the characters face. I found myself agonizing over their decisions at times, wondering what I would do in the same situations.
The conclusion of this stand-alone novel was fantastic. My feelings as the book wrapped up ran the emotional gamut. Kay did a wonderful job of keeping me fully engaged, giving me good reason to care about all his characters. This is easily one of the most solidly written fantasy novels I've read. I could heap more praise on this novel, but I wont, I'll just end by saying it was one of the most well crafted novels I've read in a while. I give this one my fullest recommendation.