It just didn't quite get there for me. Maybe it was the expectation of greatness that let me down, but I don't know. Maybe the fact that I don't have much knowledge of the history of the Iberian peninsula, but again, I don't think so. By all accounts, it's not really necessary to have external knowledge prior to reading Lions. It's not that this was bad, or that I didn't like it... In fact I'm having a hard time putting my finger on just how I'm feeling about it, now that I'm finished. On the one hand, I liked it quite a bit, but on the other, I felt like there was just something missing or off about it, and I had several issues that I can't ignore.
So this is going to be something of an itemized review...
Characters: This was by far my favorite thing about this book. I am a character reader, and I need characters that I can identify with in order to enjoy a story. This one was full of brilliantly real characters. There was quite a cast, as shown by the full character list at the beginning of the book, but I never felt confused by who was who. I loved the four main characters: Ammar, Rodrigo, Jehane and Alvar. (I also loved Rodrigo's wife Miranda, who was awesomely bad-ass. I would have loved to see much more of her.)
Ammar and Rodrigo kind of represent their people and cultures in the book, although not well at all. Most of their respective cultures are caricatures of pious intolerance and hatred, whereas Ammar and Rodrigo are both good, honorable, and open-minded men, who are willing to accept and trust based on character, not purely on belief in the "right" god. So while Ammar is an Asharite and Rodrigo is a Jaddite, they still find a way to work together.
There were quite a few emotional moments while reading this, and though I feel like they could have been better written (which I will get to in a bit), I still felt for the characters and the things that happened to them. I did feel like some of the follow-up with some characters left something to be desired, but the characters themselves were well done and fleshed out and real.
Worldbuilding: The worldbuilding here was one of the aspects that I struggled with the most. At times it was overwhelming in the amount of information given at once, but still I felt like there was still more I wanted to know. There were places named that we never got to see, but were clearly important to the history, like Aljais, or Soriyya. The descriptions were gorgeous, and I could see everything clearly, but I wanted to know more about the places that were important but never shown.
Religion: The religious aspects of this book were well done, and the dividing lines between the three different religious groups were drawn clearly, but I wanted to know more about what each believed in, not just who they hated and wanted dead because they believed in something different.
Not knowing what they actually believed in, it was hard for me to identify with either the Asharites' or the Jaddites' beliefs. Are these gods so bloodthirsty that the only valid form of worship is saying that you do and then killing those that don't? Was there no other form of worship? The Asharites abstain from alcohol, but unless I missed it, I don't see anything at all that differentiates them other than the name of the god they worship and whether or not they'll have some wine with dinner.
The Kindath were different though. I don't know much about their beliefs either, but it seems to me that they were to be equated with Jews, at least in the way that they were treated and persecuted. They at least seemed peaceful, wanting nothing more than a place to live peacefully. This apparently equates to baby-killing monsters to the bloodthirsty Asharjaddites, who both hate the Kindath. Because who better to persecute than the people who aren't allowed weapons? That being said... it was realistic and believable that different religious sects would want to kill each other. Not logical, but religious belief rarely is.
Writing: For the most part, I liked the writing. I thought that it was readable and in general, the prose was beautiful. There were some unexpectedly funny parts, and overall I liked it.
But I did have a big problem with the writing in one aspect, which was that anytime there was a moment of suspense, Kay would write the scenes in such a way as to draw it out to unnatural lengths. For instance, the one that bothered me the most was a scene in which a character died. For nine pages, we were left wondering who it was, theorizing, trying to determine who it could be. By the time the name was finally given (and it was an unexpected one), I was more annoyed with the delay tactics and manipulation than I was distressed about the character's death. I was upset about the death, but it was kind of overshadowed by a feeling that I was being manipulated. I felt that it cheapened the loss, and took away from the emotional impact it should have had. This was done in different ways and in different situations all throughout the book, and it was incredibly frustrating.
Another issue that I had was Kay's tendency to skip action, and then tell us about it later. I can sort of understand the decision for doing this. It allowed him to not only tell us what happened in condensed form, but gave us insight into some of the characters as well. I just didn't like it. I want to see the action. I want to be part of the story, not an outsider being filled in on the details later.
Pacing & Plot: At around the 75% mark, I started wondering where this story was going and how it would possibly be resolved in the remaining pages. We've been with these characters for a while, and there's been a lot of build-up and pieces moving into position, little battles and maneuverings, but nothing has really happened yet. The huge campaign
I wanted to love this book. Maybe if I'd read it before reading some of the amazing epic fantasy I've read in the last year, I would have. But the writing here just felt like it got in the way of the story. Yes, it was beautifully written at times, but the need to be mysterious and drag out the suspense, and circle back to tell us about the action or important events rather than just showing them to us to begin with really didn't work for me.
TL;DR Review: I liked it, but thought parts could have been better.