‘The Lions of Al-Rassan’ and the Weaknesses of Theocracy

On many of your recommendations after our discussion some time back about the comparative visibility of Christian-influenced fantasy in comparison to fantasy that draws its concepts from other faiths, I just finished The Lions of Al-Rassan. I quite enjoyed it, though I think it has perhaps a reverse George R. R. Martin problem — there are a lot of fascinating concepts there that feel wildly underdeveloped, like a Reconstructionist-sounding strain of Kindath theology, or the actual mechanisms of reconquest, and I wish there’d been more room to explore them. But as an exploration of the weaknesses of theocratic governance, it’s a convincing argument with all sorts of resonance today.

I’d say there’s a stupidity to what Almalik does to Ishak after performing the world’s most successful cesarean section on Zabira, the king’s chief concubine: “he had ordered the physician’s eyes put out and his tongue cut off at the root, that the forbidden sight of an Asharite woman’s nakedness be atoned for, that no man might ever heard a description of Zabira’s milk-white splendor from the Kindath doctor who had exposed her to his cold glance and his scalpel.” But the Kindath don’t have power in Al-Rassan such that they can squander it being appalled. And religion doesn’t only lead to individual bad acts of state: it guarantees a constant cycle of escalation, whether it’s Alvar’s mother getting hyped up to send him off to war by visiting Vasca’s shrine and reaffirming her sense that non-believers need to be annihilated, or providing an enormous list of slights that seem to need avenging:

At certain moments, Jehane thought, in the presence of men like Husari ibn Musa or young Alvar, or Rodrigo Belmonte, it was actually possible to imagine a future for this peninsula that left room for hope. Men and women could change, could cross boundaries, give and take, each from the other…given enough time, enough good will, intelligence. There was a world for the making in Esperana, in Al-Rassan, one world made of the two — or perhaps, if one were to dream, made of the three. Sun, stars and the moon. Then you remembered Orvilla, the Day of the Moat. You looked into the eyes of the Muwardis, or paused on a street corner and heard a wadji demanding death for the foul Kindath sorcerer ben Avren, who drank the blood of Asharite infants torn from their mothers’ arms.

It also makes people unpredictable and irrational. The governor of Fezana gets frustrated because “being deeply cautious by nature, couldn’t quite believe that Ramiro of Valledo would be so foolish enough to come and make war here, laying a siege so far form his own lands. Valledo was being paid parias from Fezana twice a year. Why would any rational man risk life and his kingdom’s stability to conquer a city that was already filling his coffers with gold.” Choices like this, or the destruction of Sorenica aren’t good for the peninsula’s economy and social stability, something its new rulers recognize when they ask the Kindath to resettle and rebuild their shattered city. I think Kay does a nice job of building the internal divisions in his three faiths — and of emphasizing that the fanatics in each religion have more in common with each other than with their coreligionists. As the invasion advances “Mazur ben Avren thought, all these delicate things were bulwarks, the innermost defenses of civilized man against the rain and dark, and ignorance. The Jaddites outside the walls did not understand that. Neither, to an even greater degree, did the veiled ones from the desert — the longed-for saviors of everyone’s prayers.” That’s a threatening insight, though not nearly as threatening as the idea that, fanatics and moderates alike, Kindath, Asharites and Jaddites are part of a larger system:

He spoke, during his sojourn with Yazir’s people, of the world as having been made by more than one god, and as only one dwelling place among many for the children of creation. This was heresy beyond comprehension. Yazir remembered wondering if even to hear it condemned him to the darkness far from Paradise when he died. It appeared that there was a sect of the Kindath, an ancient tribe, that taught of these other worlds scattered among the stars, far beyond the moons that wandered the night.

You’d think it would be easy to let go of a system that plunges you into perpetual conflict without a lot of discernible benefit if someone pointed out to you that there wasn’t a lot of difference between you and the people you’re fighting. But group identity defies cost-benefit analysis, to our sorrow.