History With a Fantasy Spin

THOSE who seek lyrically beautiful fiction that is both deeply moving and psychologically complex should find Guy Gavriel Kay's work highly satisfying. His fantasy novels are hidden treasures that, in the guise of genre fiction, will appeal widely to readers who love well-wrought stories like the superlative historical novels of Dorothy Dunnett, the fusion of history and myth in the novels of Mary Renault, or those set in Tolkien's Middle Earth. Kay's work offers a unique fantasy world, one with the ambience and sense of place of a fine historical novel yet one that also mirrors the human complexity, loyalties and conflicts -- and human evils -- of our own. This unusual vein of history with a fantasy spin helps Kay to detach readers from their own cultural prejudices, and makes his story themes all the more universal.

Lions of Al'Rassan (Harper Prism, $20; paperback $5.99) is set in a mystical, medieval Spain -- Al'Rassan -- analogous to a time when Moslems, Christians and Jews shared the land. In Kay's story the "evil" that must be fought is not a Sauron-like figure of evil, as in Tolkien, or a dragon but fanaticism and intolerance. The novel is wonderfully moving and demonstrates the power of fantasy to speak to a wide audience about the real evils of real life. As in Kay's other recent novels, the supernatural or fantastic is subdued and relatively subtle, merely providing a backdrop.

The book is a passionate call for tolerance, for "openings between worlds." Characters from three different peoples, including warriors, poets, physicians and merchants, are drawn together by bonds of love and respect, as well as by chance, then driven apart by intolerance and the senselessness of war. A soldier named Alvar hears "the sheer grandeur" of his king's vision: a reconquest of the "wide peninsula" of Esperana. "Alvar longed to be a part of this, to see it come to be, to ride his own horse into those oceans and up that mountain with his king. Yet, even as his heart heard this call to glory, he was aware of slaughter embedded in the sweep of the king's dream, or swooping above it like the carrion birds that followed the battlefields of men."

The sense of conflict that drives Guy Kay's works has evolved from his earliest novels. In the Fionavar Tapestry series, set in a Tolkien-like world, conflict derives from the struggle against a supernatural evil. In his later books, that struggle is directed toward increasingly more human characters. Branden, the tyrant-invader in Kay's international bestseller, Tigana, was complex, almost sympathetic. In Lions of Al'Rassan the struggle is between art, love and other positive values and the human bent towards fanaticism and intolerance. In these works, Kay shows, yet again, that fantasy doesn't need one-dimensional supernatural evils.

Some current fantasy writers forget that Tolkien's main heroes were smaller-than-life figures made all the more heroic by their choices. As Kay shows, the more satisfying forms of fantasy not only tell a good story, they also help us to see ourselves and the world in a new way. Kay's artistic vision embraces the finer, nobler aspects of life, such as the desire to heal, as well as the most severe evils of the ordinary world. This increased awareness may grant us the heart and desire to battle, even overcome, these evils.

"In Al'Rassan, in Esperana, Ferrieres, Karch, Batiara -- even, in time, in the far-off eastern homelands of the Asharites -- what happened that night in a burning hamlet near Fezana became legend, told so often among physicians, courts, military companies, in universities, taverns, places of worship, that it became imbued with the aura of magic and the supernatural." "Sightless, unable to communicate except through his wife who understood every mangled syllable he spoke, handling a surgeon's blades and implements for the first time since his blinding, working by touch and memory and instinct, ben Yonannon did something even Galinus had only hinted might possibly be done."

Like Dorothy Dunnett, the magnificent Scots writer of historical novels that sparkle and amaze with wit and intelligence, Guy Kay creates complex psychological characters and a rich sense of ambience, place and time. As in Dunnett's work, some of Kay's protagonists are often figures of glittering intelligence and artistic achievement, as well as proficient in the arts of war. But Kay has also found inspiration in mainstream writers, such as Milan Kundera, particularly in his early fiction, which depicts the psychological impact of totalitarianism on even the most private of human experiences. In Kay's masterpiece so far, Tigana, this theme is translated into an Italianate world where the very name and memory of a land and its people have been stripped away by the sorcery of a totalitarian conqueror. Only a small group of people is even aware that Tigana ever existed, and they hope to bring it back to life by overthrowing the tyrant-sorcerer who has destroyed it and killed their parents.

Kay's fiction is resonant and powerful, almost impossible to put down, satisfying the reader on multiple levels: Books like Lions of Al'Rassan or Tigana are hard to pigeonhole as "fantasy" because they offer fast-paced adventure, psychological and even historical insight, and evocative and even poetic writing that carries a powerful universal appeal. Swords and Sorcery

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN'S new novel, A Game of Thrones (Bantam, $21.95), is the first in an epic series about a land in which the seasons shift between periods of seemingly endless summer and seemingly endless winter. The story begins with the kingdom of Winterfell facing both external and internal dangers. Beyond her borders, the cold is returning, a dragon prince is scheming to win back his lost kingdom, and the eggs of supposedly long extinct dragons are beginning to hatch. Within Winterfell itself, war soon erupts when the king is murdered by a family grasping for unlawful power.

Many fans of sword-and-sorcery will enjoy the epic scope of this book, something of a change of pace for Martin, who has spent the last decade working for television and who has long been honored for his award-winning stories (e.g., "Sandkings"). Still, to my mind, this opening installment suffers from one-dimensional characters and less than memorable imagery. Red Bears

IN Dancing Bears (Tor, $23.95), by the versatile science fiction author Fred Saberhagen, the action revolves around "were-bears" in Russia at the dawn of the Russian Revolution. As this variation of the more traditional werewolf theme would suggest, Saberhagen's novel is written with a droll sense of humor. The were-bear, Maxim, kills his father, consumes several other people, and is pursued by his brother, sister and an American big-game hunter to Siberia and the North Pole for a final showdown and a surprising, ironic conclusion.

Although the book is well-written, more quips such as the following would have made it even more entertaining: "Since leaving Taimy with about a dozen followers, Maxim in bear-shape had devoured half the cadre, preferring to consume his most fanatical revolutionary theorists. He found that he could easily down two undernourished intellectuals at a sitting if he was really hungry. Continually he doubted and questioned the loyalty of the reminder." The Cat Comes Back

PREJUDICE on other worlds is a theme in Joan Vinge's Dreamfall (Warner, $22.95), another well-written sf novel from the Hugo-Award-winning author of The Snow Queen. This new book is the third in a series, which began with Psion, about a street kid and outcast with alien blood who calls himself Cat. Next came Catspaw. In the preface to the new book, Vinge notes that it was the most difficult book she has written. "Cat came into my head at a point in my life when I first began to grasp the unspeakable variety and immensity of the pain human beings can inflict on one other. His personal story was an empathic narrative about prejudice and injustice seen from the victim's point of view. Cat's survival was testimony to the resilience of the human spirit, and his innate goodness proved the importance of judging everyone by what they are inside, how they treat others, and not by race, sex, color, religion, or sexual preference."

Cat is mainly human, but his alien blood has endowed him with telepathic powers. When Cat loses these powers, he returns to the home world of his alien mother as part of a scientific expedition to exploit economic resources of the planet. The alien race is technologically in decline, as well as hated and oppressed by humans who are jealous of their telepathic powers. Naturally enough, Cat finds himself caught up in the strife between humans and aliens, and soon in an independence movement among his mother's race. Readers familiar with at least one of its prequels will find Dreamfall enjoyable and engaging. Faltering Earth

ROBERT SILVERBERG is the award-winning author of numerous popular science fiction stories, including a recent series, The Majipoor Cycle. While Silverberg is undoubtedly a storyteller of great imagination, this latest is not his most imaginative or engrossing work. Starborn (Bantam Spectra, $22.95) starts out with an interesting enough spin on a familiar sf premise. The evolution of human technology and conquest of all major known problems produces a loss of human vitality. "Earth now was the home of a steadily dwindling population of healthy, wealthy, cautious, utterly civilized people, living the easy life in an easy society supported by automated devices of every sort."

The ironic result is that the earth's population has dwindled to a few hundred million and seems to be spiraling towards the end of the human race within five or six hundred years: "The explosive population growth of the early industrial era had been curbed so successfully that virtually no children were being born at all." "The world had become one vast pleasant suburb of well-to-do elderly childless folks."

To reinvigorate the race, a crew is chosen for interstellar travel and to begin a search for a new home for humanity. Between this promising start and an interesting climax at the book's end, there is less to engross the reader: some predictable love affairs, too few subplots, not enough philosophical insight. Though enjoyable, as one expects from a smooth professional like Silverberg, this new book is not among the author's best. John H. Riskind is a professor of psychology at George Mason University.