One advantage historical novelists have over fantasists is the easy availability of background material; their concomitant disadvantage is the need to do justice to the complexities and realities of history. In The Lions of Al-Rassan Kay manages to achieve the worst of both worlds. Instead of using history for background detail, he has thrown out everything except the most dramatic (and "sellable") events and features, masticating them together with historical platitudes, cliches, and stereotypes in order to pap-feed his readers. In the process he manages to strip his setting of any sort of coherence or feeling of depth.
Take, for example, Kay's treatment of religion. He has simply renamed the three major religions of the period: the Jaddites are the Christians; the Asharites the Muslims; and the Kindath the Jews. But he has also stripped them of any real content at all. Not only does he have an obvious prejudice against organised religion (official religious leaders are uniformly negatively portrayed), but for him religion is just a prop, a device to flesh out his plots, to provide him with religious persecution to condemn, and to allow his heroes to show off their tolerance. (His attempt to describe a pogrom is as plastic as a Barbie doll.) Religion doesn't seem to matter to any of his characters — even the ones he describes as devout or fanatical. By placing his work so close to historical reality Kay has only exposed its shallowness; in Tigana religion is also an empty shell, but there it doesn't play a major role in the plot and it is not a parasitic parody of a real religion.
What does Kay put into his pseudo-historical setting? His writing switches clumsily between narration from the perspective of individual characters and omniscient overviews of political and historical background. Fantasy cliche is piled on fantasy cliche: a young man, joining the army for first time, accidentally overhears an important conversation; a surgeon performs an extraordinary operation to save life after all hope is abandoned; ... ; opposing leaders fight a climactic duel; and right at the end there is a contrived (and totally pointless) attempt to trick the reader. The heroes are, of course, great swordsmen, diplomats, generals, lovers, and even poets (Kay inflicts quite uncalled for amounts of his own poetry on the reader).
At the end we are supposed to feel sorrow for the fall of Al-Rassan and the passing of a way of life, not because Kay has described it and it is sad, but because he tells us we should be sad, and plays the appropriate emotional chords. But why should we care about the "many-arched courtyards of the Al-Fontina", when the Alhambra still stands? Any decent narrative history of the fall of Granada will have more poetry in it, more feeling, and more passion than Kay's pathetic pastiche.
Note (added January 1997): this review was, as should be obvious, hyperbolic. Lions may not have been as successful as Tigana, but it is still above the mass of pulp fantasy.