This mystery occupied my thoughts over the weekend, in the aftermath of a Friday night reading binge that culminated with the conclusion of Guy Gavriel Kay's epic tale, The Lions of Al Rassan.
Now I mourn the loss of Al Rassan, the dissolution of that great empire, and the rich, complex society that flourished - and perished - with it. In reading the novel, Al Rassan's history somehow became my history, its people my people, its passion, violence, ambition, and loss reflections of something deep and very real in my own experience.
What is this magic that one author can achieve, to create something so real and palpable we can hardly distinguish it from fact?
|What books have been your canopy emergents?|
Perhaps we meet friends along the way with whom we can share the discovery and enjoy the view. But sooner or later, all of us have to rappel back down to the forest floor. We wander on foot through the dark under story and delight in its lesser wonders -- no less beautiful in their own way, but somehow never quite as significant as that one climb we all remember.
Perhaps our long and winding path will lead us to another of those rare super giants, but we know instinctively that they are hard to come by. So we hold each of those encounters in our hearts as if they might have been the very last; sparkling gems that will not be forgotten.
The author's craft plays an important role in this experience; of that there can be no doubt. And Guy Gavriel Kay is a master at the craft.
But there is another piece to the magic over which the author has no control, and that is the disposition of the reader in the moment he or she picks up a book.
I was primed for Al Rassan. For much of my life, I have interacted with Latin American and Hispanic cultures that share deep roots in the history of the Iberian Peninsula. Over the past couple years, my free time has been devoted to a fascination with medieval Spain, and most particularly with the stories of Isabella and Ferdinand and their war against the Moors.
This most recent literary journey began with C.W. Gortner's The Queen's Vow, a book that focuses on Isabella's rise to power. Admittedly, this is the most user-friendly part of Isabella's history, a place in her life where we can admire the princess' courage and resolve; where we can stand beside her as she overcomes the many obstacles that stood between her and the throne of Castille.
|The TVE series ISABEL recreates the surrender of Alhambra|
(Granada). By the time the viewers reach this moment, we
understand both its triumph and its tragedy.
One thing I respect about the series Isabel is that, in the best tradition of authors like Guy Gavriel Kay, it attempts to give us multiple sides of the conflict. We are not allowed to think in terms of 'good' and 'evil', except to recognize that each human heart harbors both of those qualities, and that all of us are capable of great heroism and intense cruelty.
Season II of Isabel covers the fall of Alhambra, now known as Granada. We are brought into the heart of this beautiful medieval city, and allowed to relive the elegance and sophistication of its Islamic rulers. We also see their cruelty, in no way greater or lesser than the harsh ambitions of their opponents, Isabel and Ferdinand. Season II of Isabel, which I finished this fall, left me with a great curiosity regarding the world of medieval Islam.
And so, without knowing it, I had been primed for The Lions of Al Rassan.
I had picked up a paperback copy of Kay's book long before The Queens Vow and Isabel. A few years ago at the Campbell Conference, KU's Center for the Study of Science Fiction hosted a dollar sale on used books. The Lions of Al Rassan was buried in one of several boxes scattered across the living room floor of a dorm house. I had heard of the author, but I had not read his work. And the book was only $1. What did I have to lose? So I bought it.
That same weekend, my father-in-law passed away. Supporting my husband and his family through this loss occupied all my thoughts and energy. Al Rassan was shelved and forgotten.
Fast forward to 2014.
This year, Guy Gavriel Kay was the guest of honor at the World Fantasy Conference. While packing for WFC, I remembered I had a book by him somewhere. Sure enough, The Lions of Al Rassan was right where I'd left it two years before on my bookshelf. So I took it to D.C. and had it signed by the man himself.
|My copy was well-worn by the time it|
came to me; now it is also well-loved.
I bet that if I had read The Lions of Al Rassan two years ago, or five or ten or twenty years ago, it would not have had the impact that it had this past month. I would have enjoyed the story and recognized it as an excellent novel, but a canopy emergent? Maybe not. Because there was other information I needed, other experiences I had to have, before I could truly appreciate what Guy Gavriel Kay accomplished with this work.Before I could recognize his story as somehow, deeply, mine.
What influence did Kay have on the events that primed me for The Lions of Al Rassan? None whatsoever. This is the piece that no author anywhere on the planet can control: Whether the reader has the disposition to fully engage with a story in the moment he or she picks up our work.
Once someone told me that reading Eolyn was like encountering her own story, a retelling of something she herself had lived. This is one of the greatest complements a reader can give the author, and yet it is so beyond our power to ensure such an experience.
What we can offer is the best story possible given our particular talents at writing. The rest depends on the circumstances by which that story lands in the hands of our readers.
That is the magic and the mystery of this forest we call fiction. Finding those canopy giants can entail a long, winding path. Whether they achieve that height in our minds depends as much on ourselves as on the author. At the end of the day, it's still the journey that gives the destination meaning.
Posted by Karin Rita Gastreich