A richly imagined novel of the Middle Ages, filled with questions of race, God and fidelity, from the Booker Prize–winning Unsworth (The Song of the Kings, 2003, etc.).
In 1149, King Roger ruled a Sicily of surprising diversity—wrestled from Arabs not 50 years prior, the island was a peaceable home for Jews, Moslems, Greeks, Lombards and the newly conquering Christian Normans. Praised for his shrewdness in keeping this cultural mix in harmonious balance, King Roger is now bending to a certain pressure, one that is demanding a singularly Christian Sicily. Moslems are losing land grants and becoming serfs on their own property; Jewish cemeteries are being desecrated; and the sovereign’s Greek mosaic artisans are being replaced by inferior Normans. But in the beginning, this is all beyond the scope of Thurstan Beauchamp, assistant to Yosuf Ibn Mansur, chief financial officer to the King. Thurstan, an innocent and a bit of a dandy, had his dreams of knighthood crushed when his father entered a monastery, taking with him all of Thurstan’s inheritance. Thankfully, Thurstan, adept at languages, was plucked from the King’s guard by Yosuf, who is grooming Thurstan for a career of back-room power. Sinister forces, humiliated by their defeat in the last crusade, have plans for Thurstan and his potential to betray Yosuf in the name of Christendom. In the various intrigues of state (negotiating with revolutionary Serbs, delivering money to an assassin, spying for Yosuf), Thurstan encounters his childhood sweetheart Alicia, now a rich widow back from Jerusalem and promising Thurstan marriage, a knighthood and a place in society. While he dreams of the pure Alicia, he beds the beautiful Nesrin, an incomparable dancer he procured for the King. Yosuf tutors Thurstan on the necessity of suspicion—but too late, for soon, Thurstan becomes an expendable pawn in an international power struggle. Told that Alicia has been kidnapped, Thurstan is asked to sign a declaration of treason against Yosuf, forced to choose between his own faith and ideals, and another’s.
Unsworth’s luscious history is ripe territory for a dialogue on the ever-present struggle against intolerance, a seemingly inevitable human frailty.