Friday 23 October 2020

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Court of Lions by Jane Johnson

Amazon UK cover

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Fictional Drama /Duel Time
1400s / present day

"Kate Fordham fled to Spain to start a new life. Amid the sunlit streets of Granada and the earthly paradise of the Alhambra's gardens, towers and courtyards, she's left her past far behind. But fate is about to bring her face-to-face with her greatest fear. Five centuries ago, a message was hidden in the Alhambra's walls. There it has lain, undisturbed by the tides of history – the fall of Granada, the expulsion of its last Sultan – until Kate discovers it. Born of love in a time of desperation and danger, Kate's discovery will be the catalyst that changes her life."

Kate is living in Granada and working as a waitress in a restaurant to make ends meet. She is as beguiled as the tourists by the Alhambra palace and on one of her many visits, she finds a small piece of screwed up paper pushed between two bricks. On it are words in a language she doesn't recognise. Intrigued, she keeps it. But what is she doing in Granada in the first place, and why is she using an assumed name?

In 1476, Blessings is companion to Prince Abdul Abdullah Mohammed, known to Blessings as Momo, son of the Sultan of Granada. A slave purchased for the purpose of giving the prince someone to talk to, he becomes a close friend and follows Momo through his troubled childhood, arranged marriage, battles, flights, and the ultimate fall of Granada to the Christians under Isabella and Ferdinand.

This is a novel of two stories, the modern story of Kate and how she came to be living like a student or gap year traveller in her thirties, and that of the fall of Granada to the Christians, seen through the eyes of Blessings, a slave from north Africa, of the Tuareg tribe in modern language. 

Their lives intertwine but briefly, with Kate's assumptions about Blessings' life not quite fitting in comfortably, feeling a little forced, and so at odds with the narrative.

Blessings' story is a straight first person narrative, with few surprises, just an accurate and personal retelling of history, placing the traditional enemy in the spotlight and showing them for what they were - no worse than the Christians in the Iberian peninsula, an old and settled Muslim kingdom that rubbed happily enough alongside its Christian neighbours. It is a very sympathetic view of the kingdom, with the Christian king and queen being portrayed unequivocally as the destructive invader, a very different viewpoint to that in the majority of Spain. Indeed, the restaurant owner in Kate's tale is racist against anyone who looks like they might be from north African heritage. It is a good story, sheds some fascinating light on the Alhambra itself, a palace of unparalleled magnificence, with fountains that were switched off as Momo left it and never to work again as the Christians couldn't understand how they worked - truth maybe but added as an illustration by the author of how stupid, backward and barbaric the Christians were.

Kate's story is where the real excitement exists. Third person narrative separates it well from Blessing's narrative, but written like a detective story, snippets being revealed as you read and learn what led Kate to Spain in the first place. And for that it is more compelling. 

It isn't, to my mind, perfect, and there are some vast plot holes in Kate's story especially. Both narratives end rather abruptly - as many authors do, Ms Johnson has rushed the ending. It is less obvious in Kate's narrative, but Blessing's is slower, so the rapid gallop towards the end with scant detail shows up quite badly. It feels as if she was on her word limit and stripped away all but the necessary information and missed out on how she got there. Had she held back on some information that made no difference to the plot or story and were for sensational and shock purposes only, she may have had more capacity.

As it is, an interesting read, keeps going at a good pace, informative, but it is Kate's story that keeps you turning the pages.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Nicky Galliers

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