Decades ago I studied History at A'level - including a paper in European History from about 1480 to 1680. My revision strategy consisted of stringing together every incident of European History and making them but branches from a single stem of "Why did Spain decline in the 1600s?" It was a sure bet as this precise essay question had come up on every exam paper since before even my History teacher had been born.
That long ago study came back to me as I read Jane Johnson's glorious twin tale. In essence it is two stories separated by half a millenium, but conjoined in Geography. Johnson follows two parallel threads - a double helix if you will, not so much intertwined as touching gently on each other - with points of connection as light yet poignant as a lover's kiss. This is a story of duality - at once a present day mystery taut with tension and conflict and yet also a piece of historical fiction vividly bringing a lost world to life,
In the present day we follow Kate, a woman with a bruising past taking a far from secure refuge in the back streets of Granada. In the past we ride with the strangely named Blessings - companion to the boy prophesied to be the last Sultan of Granada.
My school boy study of Spain began with the reigns of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, As formidable a pair of monarchs as Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine - though the legacy of the Spanish Catholic Monarchs has endured better than Henry II's Angevin Empire. Blessings' account has the same starting point as my A'level European History, but sheds an alternative light on the deceptive (arguably duplicitous) simplicity of Ferdinand and Isabella's crusade against the moors.
Tolerance is another theme that seems to run through the book, in both the sense of being accepting of difference, and also in the sense of to tolerate or put up with something. Kate is a woman who has tolerated too much. The worm has not so much turned as run and - in Kate's case - run to a place that was once celebrated for its tolerance, indeed its celebration of diversity.
Today we live in interesting times, and Johnson's book reflects that. Fear, prejudice and zealotry simmer below the surface of any civilisation and the parallels between the past and the present are easy to draw.
However, neither in Kate's tale nor Blessings' does Johnson fall into the trap of casting either side as wholy saints or sinners. The moors of Granada have their bloody villains, as crimsoned as any grimdark anti-hero. The christians of Castile and Aragon have their honourable champions alongside their venal sovereigns. But the conquest of Granada still ranks alongside that of the American midwest, or aborginal Australia, as an episode of human history littered with dishonour and broken treaties. Once again history greatest gift to the winners has been to allow their perspective on events to be the one best preserved for posterity - and Johnson's novel offers a different slant on that history.
Blessings stands watching from the margins of history, harbouring secrets great and small, trading in them yet driven always by a purity of love to which all other considerations are ultimately subordinate. His voice is convincing, his tale compelling - told in Johnson's effortless liquid prose.
Kate in her journey meets similar prejudiced zealotry as she struggles to emerge from a shell into which great trauma had driven her. Yet she is endlessly drawn to the Alhambra the Moorish palace around which both Blessings' and her own story revolve.
The writing is at its most convincing when describing the people, the culture, the food even of those whose lives straddled and still straddle the Straits of Gibraltar. The author's fondness - passion even - for the places, the period and the people add well defined flesh to the bare bones of the story.
Kate's past trials - while truly dreadful - do not have quite the depth of flavour that we get when the story stalks the streets of Granada. We are necessarily removed from the events in England - which are described either as past occurrences or through panicked telephone conversations. In such circumstances it is difficult to deliver the tension of a full blooded thriller. Nonetheless, Kate's story provides an engaging counterpoint to Blessings' and brings something of that lost age into the present.
A book's power is best felt in what the reader does when it is finished. Does the story's grip persist beyond the last page? In the case of The Court of Lions, I scoured through the author's notes before throwing myself at Google to research for myself the captivating events Johnson had described.
As to my long History A'level - gentle reader. Well that year for the first time in centuries the History paper did not have a "Why did Spain Decline?" question, instead there was a different question. "How did Portugal break free from the Spanish Yoke?" So I wrote "Portugal broke free of the Spanish yoke because Spain declined." - and then wrote my planned essay.