Monday, 26 February 2018

Book review : Court of Lions - Jane Johnson

I am a very eclectic reader and will happily jump from genre to genre, be it grisly crime fiction, frivolous chick lit or fantastical teen reads. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with historical fiction though. While it can be very well done, immersing you in a specific location or time period that you may know very little about, I do sometimes find that the well-known historical characters can be a bit wooden and one dimensional. Jane Johnson is an absolute master (mistress?) of the genre though, spinning a web of enchanting tales that feature a cast of wholly believable, complex characters and their public and private dramas, entwining plotlines in both the modern day and 15th century Granada.

The list of characters in the Dramatis Personae at the beginning helps keep track of who is who, particularly in the historical storyline, as I must admit, apart from vague inklings of what the Spanish Inquisition was about, I had absolutely no knowledge of this time period. The action starts in the modern day, with an Englishwoman, Kate Fordham, who lives in Granada, discovering an intriguing scrap of paper tucked away in a wall at the World Heritage site of the Alhambra, whose palaces and gardens were constructed by the medieval Moorish kings of Granada. This tumultuous period of history saw the last Muslim sultans battling against each other and the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, before Mohammed XII of Granada, known as Momo to his friends and Boabdil to his enemies, finally surrendered the keys to the Alhambra palace and was exiled. Frequently represented throughout history as a weak failure of a man, the novel gives a more balanced view, showing him as someone who had his people's best interests at heart, wanting peace and an end to suffering rather than power and a sense of his own self-importance. After the Fall of Granada, all Jews and Muslims were eventually banished from Spain, apart from those who converted to Christianity - although many of those were accused of continuing their previous religious practices in secret, imprisoned, tortured and ultimately murdered during the Spanish Inquisition.

It's an interesting and poignant period of history, but what gives the novel its force and emotional impact is the equally heart-rending and despicable tale in modern day Granada, where Kate is confronted with past demons that she thought she had left behind. Many elements are common to both stories - complicated mother-son dynamics, ruthless fathers, the negative implications of over-zealous fanatics, whatever their religion - so the constant to-ing and fro-ing between the two time periods seems perfectly balanced.

Arguably the most important character is Blessings, who is a passionate if not objective narrator of history in the making. By nature and nurture, he is at the heart of, but also distanced from, the events going on around him - a slave sold into the sultan's family as a playmate for Momo, he shares the opulent surroundings and the respect of the future emir but has none of his power; coming from a desert tribe, he is neither Catholic nor Muslim; a hermaphrodite, his external appearance is not always in line with his inner feelings. He often makes bad choices but his heart is always in the right place, so it is easy to empathise with him. The same is true of Momo/Boabdil and, in the modern story, Kate.

It's a fascinating read - a mixture of historical fiction, love story and gripping thriller that will appeal to readers of all genres.

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £7.99

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Head of Zeus (11 Jan. 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1786694352
  • ISBN-13: 978-1786694355
  • Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 3.1 x 13.1 cm

Disclosure : I received a review copy of the book.


  1. I love historical fiction, and have noticed this book in the shops. The blurb was intriguing, and after reading your review, I think I will buy it. I know some of the history of Alhambra, as I had a beautiful art book about it. Not that I need more books in the house, but I'm going to buy it. :)

  2. I remember visiting the Alhambra as a kid ... will keep this one in mind. Cheers


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