Book Review: Court of Lions by Jane Johnson

Court of Lions…

About:

Kate Fordham, escaping terrible trauma, has fled to the beautiful sunlit city of Granada, the ancient capital of the Moors in Spain, where she is scraping by with an unfulfilling job in a busy bar. One day in the glorious gardens of the Alhambra, once home to Sultan Abu Abdullah Mohammed, also known as Boabdil, Kate finds a scrap of paper hidden in one of the ancient walls. Upon it, in strange symbols, has been inscribed a message from another age. It has lain undiscovered since before the Fall of Granada in 1492, when the city was surrendered to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Born of love, in a time of danger and desperation, the fragment will be the catalyst that changes Kate’s life forever.

An epic saga of romance and redemption, Court of Lions brings one of the great hinge-points in human history to life, telling the stories of a modern woman and the last Moorish sultan of Granada, as they both move towards their cataclysmic destinies.

 

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My Thoughts:

Court of Lions is a stunning novel, the historic detail alone earning it five stars. My edition is the one with the beautiful gold detailing all over it, and while they say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, in this case, it’s impossible not to! It’s quite glorious to look at and perfectly conveys the sumptuous setting of the novel.

There are two stories being told within the pages of Court of Lions, both of which are largely set in the Moorish palace complex in Granada, the Alhambra, but spanning centuries apart. In the modern day, we have Kate Fordham, hiding out in Granada from a shockingly brutal past and in the 15th century, we have Blessings, companion to Prince Abu Abdullah Mohammed, the last Sultan of Granada, affectionately known as Momo (which I will use for the remainder of this review). The story that Blessings recounts is fully tragic, it’s history already available to us, while Kate’s is more hopeful, on account of it being entirely fictitious. While Blessings is a character that stems from the author’s imagination, the story he tells is very real, that of the fall of Granada, but with a more sympathetic leaning towards Momo, the last sultan, who, as the author points out, has on a whole been treated rather cruelly by other historic retellings. I found this story, and the entire history surrounding it, absolutely fascinating right from the get go, so you’ll have to forgive me for concentrating within this review on the historic parts of Court of Lions more than the modern story. This is in no way a reflection of my overall enjoyment of the novel. I thought that the two stories complemented each other beautifully, with a serendipitous connection at the end that truly warmed my heart, but the history within this novel – it just can’t be ignored!

Court of Lions is largely a story about the dangers of religious fanaticism, an example of how we, as humans, really don’t seem to be able to learn from history. From the political right down to the domestic, this story shows how even the most peaceful of religions can be warped and twisted to suit a fanatical purpose. It truly is a very clever and quite philosophical novel with a definite agenda in terms of educating through the medium of fiction – my favourite kind!

“How could they destroy a city and the people within from a distance? What honour lies in such warfare, when a man does not face his enemy and fight him hand to hand but kills without even seeing the damage he does? Where’s the chivalry in that?” – Momo, Sultan of Granada.

This particular lament by Momo to Blessings, highlights how clever Jane Johnson has been with this novel. Here, we have the ‘bombing’ of Granadan cities by the Catholic King Ferdinand declared an atrocity by the Sultan, a deeply devout Muslim leader, whose greatest hope was for his people to be able to live and worship in peace in the land they had inhabited for centuries. To my mind, the suggestion here, when placed within the context of current affairs, is clear and apparent. There is much to be learnt about the dangers of fundamentalist ideals, within any religion, from the pages of this novel. Blessings, for all his ‘heathen’ ways, makes a very good point:

“To try to force an entire populace, with all manner of conflicting backgrounds and loyalties, to worship in precisely the same way on pain of torture and death seemed to me violently wrong, perversely cruel.”

 

Blessings’ own personal story was quite heartbreaking. The confusion he lived with, the despair of unrequited love along with his lack of self-worth; we don’t find out the full extent of how Blessings has suffered until the end of the story. While at times he frustrated me, acting out as a puppet master for his own motivations towards Momo, I still loved him right the way through the story, for never has there been a man more doomed from the start, than poor Blessings.

“Some memories you bury deep. Some you dig up again uncontrollably to get a good whiff of their putrefaction. But no matter how long they have been buried or how often you exhume them they retain their power to poison your life.”
“I had come to believe that the world would somehow change shape to accommodate my love for him. But the world seemed intent on teaching me cruel lessons.”

 

Kate was also a character I immediately bonded with and her story was quite shocking and disturbing in turn. Within Kate’s story, we see the author bring the elements of religious fanaticism down to the domestic level, and wow, what a story this shaped up to be. As I mentioned previously, Kate’s story has an element of hope to it that was not present within Blessings’ story.

“And suddenly he smiled and his whole face was transformed, as if filled with inner light, and she fell in love with such a ridiculous sensation of free fall that it was as if she were in a dream, plummeting to the ground.”

Unlike poor Blessings, Kate has a chance at love, and I really enjoyed this build up for her, a nice aside from all the fear and disquiet she was enduring.

Court of Lions is filled with beautifully moving passages of insightful observations, intimate introspection, and romantic longing. Out of all of the 400 pages, my absolute favourite quote is this one, spoken to Kate shortly after she has broken down and confessed part of her story to a stranger:

“Sometimes it takes strength to choose the path of weakness. Sometimes surrender is more courageous than resistance. But it’s hard for people to see that.”

That’s a message I really needed to hear right now and it just goes to show that sometimes you can pick up the right book at the right time and the impact this has on you confirms exactly why you love to read in the first place. Court of Lions is nothing short of splendid, the very best kind of fact inspired historical fiction, balanced with an excellent and strongly linked present day tale. I can’t recommend this novel highly enough!

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