I thoroughly enjoyed this book. From the opening pages the author plunges us into an exotic and unfamiliar world – unfamiliar to us, that is. We know from the start that we are in the hands of a writer who is completely at home with her setting.
The action takes place in seventeenth century Morocco, at the court of the Sultan Moulay Ismael. Johnson is adept at employing all our senses to create her scene. Visually, she gives us a picture of luxury and colour, contrasted with extreme squalor. She conjures up the scents and tastes of exotic perfumes and pungent spices and the sound of rain, or music – or the screams of men under torture.
It is a country subject to the whims of the sultan, built on slavery and terror; but also a place where beauty is prized and art and trade flourish.
In her two central characters Johnson has created people who grab our interest from the outset and our hearts very quickly afterwards. Nus Nus is a slave and a eunuch, but he is also a man of courage and integrity, capable great kindness. Over the course of the story we see him develop from a fatalistic acceptance of his position and the terrible wrong that has been done him to a man capable of becoming the warrior his tribe would have made him had he not been captured. At the same time, we learn that fighting is not in his true nature. Given a free choice he would be a musician, a talent that is to stand him in good stead as the story progresses. He is also highly intelligent. Originally bought by an English doctor, who treated him more like an apprentice than a slave, he has been taught to read and write in several languages, talents which have brought him to a position close to the Sultan. It is part of his job to keep the ‘couching book’ which requires him to witness and record the sultan’s sexual encounters with his many concubines, in order to keep track of any issue and their place in the succession. Seeing how he grows from this position of humiliation to a man with his pride restored is one of the great pleasures of this book.
The second character is Alys, an Englishwoman captured by corsairs and given to the Sultan as a concubine. Ismael is captivated by her fair beauty, but before being taken to his bed she must convert to Islam. She refuses and it is Nus Nus who is given the task of persuading her, knowing that if he fails both their lives will be forfeit. In the process, he falls in love with her himself and is then forced to witness her violent rape by Ismael. A child comes of the union and Alys is transformed. Having reached the age of twenty-four unmarried she has almost given up hope of ever being a mother and her devotion to little ‘Momo’ is total. The main plot of the book turns on the efforts of Alys and Nus Nus to preserve his life from the jealousy of Zidana, the sultan’s chief wife.
In Zidana and Ismael Johnson has created two characters to stand in stark contrast to her hero and heroine. Ismael is pathologically unstable, given to fits of uncontrollable rage in which he kills and maims without compunction, and which he seems to forget immediately afterwards. Zidana is a monster, in size and character. Clever, sly and ruthless she is an expert in poisons and a believer in the Black Arts. Between the two of them Nus Nus and Alys must steer a perilous course.
Half way through the book the scene switches to Restoration London and once again Johnson sets the scene masterfully. The city is still recovering from the Great Fire and we see the contrast between the great swathes that are still ruined and the magnificent new buildings that are rising amid the desolation. The royal palaces are as opulent as Ismael’s but in a very different style. Portraits and tapestries showing scenes of life replace the abstract designs allowed by Islam and the women, by contrast with the all-enveloping clothing of the Moroccan ladies, flaunt their bosoms for all to see. Johnson has fun demonstrating how easily some of the Moroccan embassy are seduced by this new lifestyle. We are introduced to a number of people familiar from the history books, like Nell Gwynne and Samuel Pepys. But here, as in Morocco, Nus Nus and Momo are in constant danger.
There are enough plot twists and cliff-hangers to keep the reader avidly turning the pages. A truly satisfying read.