Head of Zeus | 2017 (6 July) | 397p | Review copy | Buy the book
Kate Fordham has left her old life, and much that she loves, behind her, driven from her home by brutal circumstances that have left her scarred and living under a new name in the beautiful city of Granada in Spain. Kate works in a bar in the city but her heart is most at home in Granada’s Alhambra, the palace of the Moors, with its stunning architecture and luxurious gardens. One day while visiting the site, Kate discovers in one of the walls a screwed up piece of very old paper marked with words written in no known language. And a door into the Alhambra’s past opens before us.
It is the late 15th century and the last act of the Sultans’ rule in Granada and southern Spain is about to play out. Prince Abu Abdullah Mohammed stands on the verge of the throne. The prince’s father, the Sultan, is unpopular, his cruel uncle hated even more, but the Sultan seals his fate when he puts his Sultana, the prince’s mother, aside in favour of Isobel de Solis, his beautiful Spanish war captive. But war within the family almost pales beside the threat from outside Granada. Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain are resolute in their determination to drive the Moors from Spain once and for all and they will show no mercy. But safe within the defensive walls of the Alhambra, the young prince shows another side. His closest friend is a child called Blessings. Blessings was sold from a desert tribe of North Africa to be the prince’s companion. Blessings finds the unexpected: painful unrequited love for the prince known and loved as Momo. Their story will play out against the drama of Granada’s last stand.
Court of Lions is such an enticing read! It’s a beautiful looking book with that fine hallmark of a Head of Zeus hardback – a ribbon – and just looking at it made me want to read it. I’m so glad I did. Jane Johnson richly evokes the last days of what must have seemed an Eden on Earth, the Alhambra, and brings it alive in colour, scents and fountain waters, though the involving story of Mumo and Blessings. The descriptions of the Alhambra are gorgeous, reminding us how hard it must have been for its Moorish inhabitants to give it up. This is a novel about war, though, and there are plenty of action-packed scenes as Mumo and his family fight each other for supremacy before Isabella and Ferdinand exert their own cruel influence. But the most wonderful parts of Court of Lions are those which take us within the walls of the Alhambra.
The novel moves backwards and forwards between the later years of the 15th century and the present day in which Kate struggles to escape and then confront her past. I enjoyed Kate’s story, particularly her interaction with the modern inhabitants of Granada, a city in which cultural differences still exist. But the heart of the novel, and the source of its greatest pleasure, is in the chapters which carry us back into history. Kate has little connection with this past beyond a sensitivity to the Alhambra’s history – this isn’t a timeslip novel – instead we’re given a sympathetic, atmospheric and elegant portrait of the Alhambra and its people through the centuries, focusing on characters past and present who capture our imagination wonderfully.
I’m delighted to post this review as part of the blog tour to celebrate the publication of Court of Lions by Head of Zeus on 6 July. For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below.