In Emeralds of the Alhambra, a medieval knight becomes embroiled in the court intrigues of Muslim Spain. He fights for his life against deadly assassins and struggles with his forbidden love for Layla, the most beautiful woman in Granada’s Alhambra. Born in Brittany, William Chandon rose from humble beginnings until he achieved the notice of the court of Edward III of England. English and French political interests in 14th-century Spain draw Chandon into the disputed frontier between Muslim Andalusia and the Christianized kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. Chandon defends the Aragonese fortress of Jaen against Moorish invaders. When his adversaries besiege and overrun the castle, Chandon suffers grievous wounds, which almost end his life. The Moors claim him as an important prisoner of war and transport him back to their capital at Granada, site of the beautiful Alhambra Palace. There, Chandon meets various doctors, courtiers, ministers, poets, and guards. The person who intrigues him most is the compassionate Layla al-Khatib, daughter of the chief minister. Layla tutors Chandon in Arabic, while she studies English with his guidance, all at the Sultan of Granada’s command. Leila’s quest for enlightenment leads to her study of Sufi mysticism. Her inherent outspoken nature coupled with startling beauty attracts Chandon’s attention, but Layla’s activities in the male-dominated court also invite danger to herself. A tender relationship blossoms between Chandon and Layla, even though the divide between them seems almost insurmountable at times.
The novel brings myriad worlds and ideals together. The extensive list of characters and their various interests represent the diversity of Muslim Spain during this period. There is the household doctor, Saluman, a Jew welcomed in most areas of the court, but still marginalized by his religious beliefs. He cares for Chandon and develops a deep relationship with the knight, despite their differences. Layla’s father Lisan al-Din ibn al-Khatib is the grand vizier within the Alhambra, a man who has known his share of personal tragedy, yet manages to keep a tight grip on his position of power. Layla hides behind her veils as Moorish society dictates, but her father’s indulgence permits her to make bold choices not often available to women of her time. Yusuf ibn Zamrak, famed for his poetry serves as a respected member of the court, harbors a dangerous infatuation for Layla. Sultan Muhammad V orchestrates an audacious plan to ensure the stability of his regime, one in which Chandon plays his part. Despite best efforts, Muhammad remains aware of the dangers surrounding him and the swift ease with which palace intrigues can destroy the foundations of all he has built.
Author John D. Cressler brings a largely ignored period to life in this novel, with sumptuous details and vivid characterizations. Where the novel really shines is in the descriptions and the relationships Chandon develops with Saluman and Leila. Each shares a deepening respect of the other as the story progresses, each open-minded and willing to accept the challenge to change preconceived notions. The novel hearkens back to a time where connections between Jews, Muslims, and Christians were as contentious as they were cooperative. It was a world allowing for the free exchange of ideas, but often permeated with ruthlessness and tragedy. Emeralds of the Alhambra is the first of a series and I look forward to more from the author.