Court of Lions by Jane Johnson
Living in a world where we’ve reached a point where anything “Muslim” brings up connotations of fear, we have easily forgotten how much the Muslim world has given us. Mathematics and our numbers, to name but two, all came to prominence within the Muslim world. It is into this dichotomy that Jane Johnson sets her characters. Split between a modern world where the Muslim is seen with fear and a medieval world where, despite their advancement, they are there to be exterminated; at the centre of both stands the Alhambra.
Having escaped England, Kate works in a Granada tapas bar under an assumed name. The bar is not the grandest, the boss less than welcoming to any of a non-European tint. Kate suffers through this as it is better than what she left behind, even though her son is one of the things she's run from. She communicates to her twin sister in code via anonymous email accounts. Her only escape from the fear of being discovered is the Alhambra. It is on one of her visits to the palace that she finds a coded note hidden behind weeds in the bricks. 550 odd years earlier, Blessings lives in the Alhambra as a Special Companion to the son of the Sultan, Prince Abu Abdullah Mohammed, Momo to his friends, Boabdil to history. The bond between the two is strong, as is the unrequited love Blessings has for his friend. Blessings is an outsider, bought into the Alhambra from his desert tribe we now know as the Tuareg. His knowledge of the arts of his tribe sets him apart and he is our way into the world of Alhambra before it’s fall. The tale Blessings tells us is one of intrigue and betrayal. Both from within the ruling family, with the Sultan falling under the spell of Christian captive Isobel de Solis, and more personally, from Blessings himself. The infighting and the work he carries out under instruction from the Vizier, the steady advance south of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, is an ominous portent of the prophecy of Momo’s fate. Kate and Blessings’ worlds are closing in on them, in very different ways. Confrontation is inevitable and the choices they have made slowly start to come home to roost.
Jane Johnson builds the tension of the inevitable terribly well. While we know the fate of the Sultanate from history, Kate’s tale unfolds more slowly, but the inevitably of both is such that we dread the culmination of both tales. Looking at the encroachment of Christianity into Emirate of Granada from a Muslim perspective, we see shocking parallels with today. Only the fundamentalism we feel we know is reversed. The role Isabella and Ferdinand’s faith in the Church is such that nothing was too extreme for them in their mission. Johnson’s positing of Kate in modern times, seeing the treatment of Muslims in modern Christian Spain, plays well against the rising tide in Blessings time. The journey into Christian lands they take shows the difference between the two worlds.
While this similarity with our world is well paced and shown without too much over egging (Kate's husband and the reveal at the end aside), the main highlight of Johnson’s novel is the women she has created. They lead their own stories and are not used as just plot points. While less than admirable things happen to Kate, they are not used to titillate or just further the tale for someone else. In this regards, Court of Lions sits well with Omar El Akkad’s American War, in which the female viewpoint drives the story for their own purpose and not anyone else’s. It is refreshing and does the wider story much justice.
Court of Lions is admirable modern thriller which I enjoyed very much. Johnson delicacy with her characters allows them to stand up and yet does not shield them from the consequences of their actions. In this portrayal alone, Court of Lions would be well worth your time and space in your holiday packing, but Johnson has crafted a superior tale that grabs you from the off.
Court of Lions by Jane Johnson is out now and published by Head of Zeus (who kindly provided this review copy).