The Sultan's Wife by Jane Johnson

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The Sultan's Wife by Jane Johnson

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A novel of intrigue and adventure that teaches as it enchants, sweeping across Charles II's Restoration London and despotic, dangerous 17th century Morocco. It also involves a romance but there's so much else to attract the attention that even the most heart-hardened history buff will find something in it to appeal.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: May 2012
Publisher: Viking
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0670918003

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Alys Swann is leaving her native Holland to accomplish the marriage her mother arranged for her in London. Alys's parents are English but fled to Holland when her late father discovered he was on the wrong side during the English Civil War. The trip turns out to be more adventurous than Alys would like as she's kidnapped by pirates and delivered to Moroccan potentate Sultan Moulay Ismail who's a little mentally unstable (and that's an understatement). His plan for her is as a welcome addition to his globally sourced harem. There she meets Nus-Nus, eunuch and the Sultan's scribe, who has problems of his own. A local apothecary dies in a most unnatural way and Nus-Nus seems to be the only suspect. The royal court has always been a dangerous place but, for Nus-Nus, and indeed Alys, staying alive has suddenly become more of a challenge than it seemed before... and that's saying something.

The author, Jane Johnson, isn't so much 'poacher turned gamekeeper' as someone who enjoys both roles simultaneously. For the past 20 years she's successfully juggled publishing with being a prolific writer for both adults and children. In The Sultan's Wife (the second of her Moroccan trilogy, following The Salt Road) she introduces historic figures to fictional and populates an exotic storyscape. Feisty, determined Alys is a fictional representation of many women who shared her fate. Although strong, Alys looks forward to marrying the person her mother has chosen for her, ensuring that, refreshingly, she actually has some 17th century traits and isn't a thinly disguised 21st century feminist. Nus-Nus is again an inspiration rather than a fact. Born into African tribal royalty and sold into slavery by other Africans, it wasn't only his freedom that was stolen but his dignity as he was demoted from Prince to eunuch. (Nus-Nus, his slave name, actually means 'Half-and-Half', cruelly referencing his deficiency in masculine assets.) The person who dominates the novel, though, is Sultan Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif, and he was very, very real.

It must be wonderful for a novelist not to have to invent a baddie, especially when history reveals one as cruel as the Sultan. He reigned from 1672 till 1727, had a mercurial temper, the nickname of 'Bloodthirsty' and the desire to build a city (Meknes, now a world heritage site) to rival the beauty of Versailles. His eye for detail was a little unusual, however; he planned to put 10,000 enemies' heads around the walls as a finishing touch. He started collecting early, preserving each in salt. One gets the feeling that his historical records may be slightly exaggerated when it comes to numbers though. For instance, he apparently fathered over 1,000 children, the last one following his death by a lot more than the customary nine months, so make your own minds up. The Sultan's chief wife, known in contemporary records as 'The Witch Zidana', when fully considered, seems the perfect match and adds a further element of evil, this time mixed with the supernatural.

Morocco of the 17th century was indeed a country of contrasts in more than the obvious geographical ways. Its nobles had a huge thirst for learning, employing scholars and building huge libraries, and yet they had a huge capacity for superstition too. They were capable of amazing feats of engineering, but believed that goats could house the souls of dead people and voodoo-like dolls had the power of life and death over enemies. These little details and many more like them are where the novel comes into its own. Jane Johnson is married to a Moroccan and lives there half the year, her adoption and submersion into the culture providing a depth to her work that may not otherwise have occurred so naturally. The chapters are seasoned with factoids for osmotic absorption as the story draws you on. For instance, the word 'harem' comes from the word for 'forbidden', 30 workmen a day died constructing Meknes, and (my particular favourite) there are several ways to geld a eunuch. (It's ok; no need to avoid the novel if you're squeamish. The detail isn't overly graphic.) We Brits have no reason to feel smug though. Restoration England also appears as a setting. Our own 'civilised' country doesn't come off well in comparison. It's portrayed as somewhere slavery is encouraged and where poverty caused as many, if not more, deaths than a despot.

This is a magic carpet of a novel that will take you away from the mundane into a world where truth and adventure merge into something rather rewarding.

I would like to thank the publisher for giving Bookbag a copy of this book for review.

If you enjoyed this then perhaps you'd like to try The Sheen on the Silk by Anne Perry.

Buy The Sultan's Wife by Jane Johnson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Sultan's Wife by Jane Johnson at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Sultan's Wife by Jane Johnson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Sultan's Wife by Jane Johnson at Amazon.com.


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