Launch: Michael Lynes’s The Red Citadel
INTERVIEW BY J.K. KNAUSS
Michael Lynes writes the Isaac Alvarez mysteries, set in late fifteenth-century Andalusia. He won a prize for his debut, Blood Libel, at the 2020 Emirates Literature Festival. Best-selling author Sophie Hannah called it ‘immensely gripping,’ and the Historical Novel Society said, ‘Lynes knows his history and tells the story with verve.’
He published his second novel, The Heretic’s Daughter, in 2022. Awais Khan, author of The Company of Strangers, said it had ‘everything a historical thriller should have, and more.’ The Red Citadel (2023) is the third and probably final book in the series.
Michael is a member of the Crime Writers’ Association (he is the founding convenor of the Gulf Chapter), the Historical Novel Society, and the Alliance of Independent Authors. He is an alumnus of the Faber Academy Writing a Novel course. Originally from London, he lives in Dubai with his family.
How would you describe this book and its themes in a couple of sentences?
It’s a historical thriller set in the court of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain. It takes place in Granada, Andalusia, 1499 and depicts a city and a family in turmoil. It asks is Isaac Alvarez a heretic, a spy, and a murderer.
Why was it important to set your story specifically in 1499 in Granada?
The story is set against the background of the Alpujarra uprising of 1499. Granada was the Muslims’ last stronghold in Andalusia, a region that they lost control of in 1492 after seven hundred years of dominance. Isaac Alvarez becomes involved in the uprising both personally and politically. After being exiled from Seville to Granada for heresy, he lives in the house of the ringleader, Abdul Rahman. The king asks him to become a double agent and spy on the rebels. In return, the king promises to lift his exile.
He falls in love with Aisha, Abdul Rahman’s wife. This causes great internal conflict and guilt because he still loves Maria – his first wife – who was executed by the Inquisition. Isaac still hopes to be reunited with her in heaven. This is another example of the duality in his life: Jew/Catholic, Maria/Aisha, Seville/Granada.
Isaac is at heart a Jew and so has empathy with Muslims as they are also outsiders in Andalusia at this time and subject to oppression by the Catholic monarchs.
Isaac’s loyalty seems split in every possible way! What inspired you to start writing this series?
I wrote the series after a visit to Seville in 2012. I met Moises Anselem, who is a university lecturer and specialist in the Jewish history of Spain. I found the stories he told me inspiring, particularly the one about the blood libel.
You’ve been fortunate to visit some of the locations in your series. Were you able to include details from things you saw?
I’ve visited Andalusia regularly over the past decade, in particular Seville, where the first two Isaac Alvarez novels are set. The historic part of the city centre is well preserved and you can imagine what it might have been like five hundred years ago as the medieval period became the Renaissance.
It was amazing to be there last year for the Easter – Semana Santa – celebrations, which play a crucial part in Blood Libel. You get the greatest feeling of history in the royal palace – the Real Alcázar. The upper royal rooms are spectacular and well worth booking a special visit. I transposed this location to a scene in the Alhambra in The Red Citadel, where Cardinal Cisneros interrogates Isaac and his daughter, Isabel.
This is the third book in the series. Does the reader need to have read the first two in order to understand this one?
Hopefully, I’ve done a good enough job of weaving the back story of the first two novels into The Red Citadelso that it can be read as a standalone. It’s the final part of the trilogy, so the reader will get a deeper experience if they’ve read the first two. In particular, I hope readers will enjoy watching Isabel’s development from teenager to young woman.
Tell us about your next project.
I’ll be returning to Granada at Easter 2024 to research my next book. It’s likely to be a young adult novel set in the Isaac Alvarez universe. It will focus on Juana, who is Isaac’s ten-year-old ward.
She was orphaned when her father – Isaac’s best friend, Juan – was executed by the Inquisition and her mother died in mysterious circumstances. She discovers that she has supernatural powers. The Alhambra in Granada – the red citadel – will again be a key setting. On my next visit, I hope to get a real sense of this magical palace-cum-fortress.
What life experiences have shaped your writing most?
I concentrate on my writing full time now. I’ve had the privilege to spend twenty years – half of my adult life – outside my home country of England. I’ve lived in both the Far East and the Middle East. This has given me the opportunity to meet people and think about the world in a very different way, particularly the way in which different cultures mix. But perhaps most importantly, I’ve been able to sample some truly spectacular food!
Do any special dishes you’ve sampled show up in the series?
I’ve tried to integrate food into the books as much as possible. I was inspired to do this by Donna Leon’s Inspector Brunetti series.
Isaac has a favourite tapa-type dish of mojama – tuna – which he eats in the bars. In Granada, we see the family eating feasts of Aisha’s Arabic food – couscous, roasted meats and vegetables, pomegranate juice and baklava – sweet pastries. Characters drink sweet mint tea and eat fistfuls of almonds. Isaac bemoans his weight gain.
I do this to set the awful things that happen against their domestic setting. I hope it helps readers to see the characters as real people and to empathise with them.
How do you get to know your characters from the distant past?
Some authors spend time drawing up lists of character traits and biographies. I don’t do that – perhaps I’m just too lazy! I prefer to put my characters into action and watch how they react.
Once I’ve established the constraints of the time they are in and their situation, I try to imagine how I would react. I don’t believe essential human feelings, wants, and desires have changed dramatically over time.
What is the best writing advice you have to share?
Reading extensively and thoughtfully in your chosen genre is imperative.
What is the last great book you read?
I’m reading Babel by R F Kuang at the moment. It’s historical fantasy – not my preferred genre – but it might just be a masterpiece. Her novel Yellowface – a satire of the publishing industry – is also very good.