Court of Lions

Written by Jane Johnson
Review by Carol McGrath

In the last decade of the 15th century, a scrap of paper containing a mysterious message was hidden in a wall in the Alhambra Palaces in Granada, to be discovered five centuries later by Kate Fordham. It will change Kate’s life. She is working as a waitress in the shadow of the palaces, hiding from a terrifying past. We follow her story and the unravelling of the paper’s message alongside the story of Ferdinand and Isabella’s expulsion of the last Sultan and Granada’s fall.

The dual-time narrative is thrilling, with many tense scenes. The descriptions pull readers into hauntingly beautiful gardens, palace rooms, arid landscapes, and scary, narrow lanes.

Blessings, Prince Momo’s friend and guard, is a vividly realised personality, dedicated to his master, moving around the Alhambra as a spy. We meet the young prince’s bitter and strong mother, a wicked stepmother, viziers and Spanish generals as the depths of internecine plotting and betrayal are revealed. Johnson’s masterly character depictions mean that we climb walls with Blessings, participate in battles alongside him, feel sympathy when he loses his foot and has a golden replacement. Creative, elegant Momo sadly lived through several decades of ruthless Spanish rule to see much of his peoples’ culture destroyed. Johnson’s handling of this through Momo’s perspectives is masterful, sensitive and poignant. He is delightful but unlucky, ousting his father to become Sultan, only to be betrayed by Ferdinand and the Spanish Inquisition.

The past narrative of personal loss and unrequited love is balanced by Kate’s story. She is believable and sympathetic. In a Shakespearean way, her world rights itself in time’s fullness. If you enjoy exquisitely told, superbly researched, epic dual narratives with characters that remain in your mind after the last page is turned, read Court of Lions.