In 1149, Norman-born King Roger rules Sicily with a healthy mixture of tolerance and skepticism. Rarely, however, have things looked worse for the King than they do
this spring, the world around him riddled with indecision following the disastrous Second Crusade that culminated in the failure to take Damascus.
His Majesty cannot seem to find a home for his loyalties outside of his City State. A combined Venetian and Byzantine fleet is blockading Corfu and threatening Sicilian control of the Southern Adriatic. Menacing machinations are also coming from within the
Against this background, the young disinherited Norman knight Thurstan Beauchamp helps administer the King's chancery, employed in the Diwan of Control, engaged to assist the King in procuring entertainment. Working as a sort of 12th-century publicity officer, Thurstan is essentially burdened with statecraft, privy to all the inner workings of the King's cabinet.
Sent by the higher-ranking Yusef, a man of Saracen descent, on a covert mission to Calabria, Thurstan hopes that he can acquire some information on the bourgeoning Saracen Empire. It is here that he meets a group of traveling Yazidi dancers and becomes obsessed with the beautiful dark-haired Nesrin.
Originating from eastern Anatolia, Nesrin dances with a glass in her navel, the memory of that ornament nestling at the center of Nesrin's being, flashes its sensual message.
Almost at once, Thurston is besotted.
Thurston's clandestine affair with Nesrin is a respite, but his childhood
sweetheart Lady Alicia remains the perfect foil for the endless intrigues and the hint of betrayal that begin to take over his life. Thrust into the political maneuverings of royal life, Thurstan becomes a player in the drama for the control of Sicily.
Little does Thurstan know that the King has enemies on all hands, both at home and abroad, with the co-religionists believing that the threat to his life and to the throne will come from Muslim subjects. There are also those in his own faith who hate the King because he took no part in the crusade and because he resists the Pope's claims to overlordship.
The tensions and hostility amongst the State begin to move just below, "like a slow flame in damp grass."
As the propaganda machine is set in motion, the Saracens are soon seen as "corrupted blood," with Christendom being declared the universal church. Reality strikes soon enough, and Thurstan becomes the wounded party in an effort to usurp King Roger's throne.
Author Barry Unsworth presents a turbulent gilded age mired in contradictions and disagreements, the contempt of Greek and Arab alike for Norman uncouthness and barbarity reflected in the tumultuous scheming within the Palace.
Time and place is beautifully rendered in a world where religion and political ideologies are pitted against each other, reflecting the inevitable break, the tragic division that
took place between the Muslim East and the Christian West.