Court of Lions is a rich novel, steeped in history and alternating between two time periods and two points of view. The first is Kate Fordham in the present day. On the run from an abusive and maniacally religious husband, she is living under an assumed identity in Granada as her twin sister keeps her son safe. She discovers a note tucked away in a wall, written in an old language, and her love of codes leads her to try to decipher what it says.
The note was written by Blessings, the other half of the story and a boy living in the palace of 1476 Granada as companion to the sultan’s son Momo. Momo has been prophesied to cause the downfall of his kingdom, and to anyone familiar with the history, it may be evident that the Spanish Inquisition is just around the corner.
Blessings’ half of the story is by far the stronger piece. I knew of the Inquisition and of Ferdinand and Isabella’s crusade to colonize the entire world and convert everyone to Christianity, so I very much enjoyed reading about this period in history from another perspective. Momo, who grew up to become Sultan Abu Abdullah Mohammed, in this book was a tender hearted man who couldn’t bear to see his people suffer and starve. Some may have considered his eventual capitulation weak, but Johnson presents him in a sympathetic light. Reluctant to engage with the brutality of the Spanish forces, Momo wants only to negotiate for his people to live in peace and free to worship as they choose. I wish we could’ve delved a bit deeper into his thought process. While we get a clear sense of Momo’s pain and regret as negotiations don’t go as planned, we don’t get as clear a sense of any kind of strategy on his part to defeat Spain, and while that may be part of his pacifist character, he’s often a passive figure in the battle. Part of that may be because we read this part of the story from Blessings’ perspective, and his main interest isn’t the political climate or the country’s welfare so much as it is his unrequited love for the prince. It’s a sympathetic tale and Blessings goes to great lengths for his love, even losing his leg at one point, but the broader political piece could’ve been explored deeper.
The present-day narrative just felt distracting. There is little to link Kate’s story to Blessings, other than the location and possibly a familial link to one of the characters she encounters. The mystery around the piece of paper she discovers leads to her meeting new friends, but the mystery is solved mostly off-page, and the primary focus is her escape from her husband. Thematically, her husband’s bigotry and religious fervour parallels that of Ferdinand and Isabella’s, but to make any further comparison of the storylines is tenuous at best, and insulting at worst. As a result, the two stories feel completely disconnected, and I felt that Kate’s story had enough going on in it to be an entire book. Things like self-harm and PTSD and told mostly in passing, and I know her fear only because she states it. Most of the major action (assault, a kidnapping) happens in flashback or off-page, and as a result, it loses some of its urgency. (One key exception is a rape scene, which was just creepy.)
Overall, this is a good read, and an interesting new perspective on the events in Granada during the Spanish Inquisition.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.