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Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Sultana: Two Sisters by Lisa J Yarde


Prior to writing Sultana: Two Sisters, I had not envisioned a six-part series on the Nasrid Dynasty. Two years ago, after a long fascination with the matriarch of the last Muslim dynasty to rule in Spain, I released Sultana and Sultana’s Legacy. Lingering interest became an obsession that would not go away, even after other novels took me in different directions. Some readers kept asking if there would be another book on Moorish Spain, but I adopted a wait-and-see approach. Once the first books did well, including a foreign rights deal, I felt confident enough to pursue the tale of the next generation of Nasrids.

Spain has always been an amalgamation of various cultures and religions. After thousands of years under the Celts, Romans and Visigoths, the last major invasion began in 711, when Arabs and Berbers took the peninsula. They might have claimed France if Charles Martel, grandfather of Charlemagne, had not halted their advance twenty years later. Christian kingdoms slowly pushed back the Moorish tide in the Reconquista until the late 1200’s when only Muslim Granada remained. Still, almost eight hundred years of Moorish rule left its mark on Spain’s identity as a Catholic nation, and on its music, foods and language.

Why do I find Moorish Spain and this particular family so interesting? The Nasrids ruled from their hilltop fortress of the Alhambra from 1232 and held out for 260 years. Castile considered Granada as a vassal rather than an enemy for most of that period and demanded annual tribute payments rather than expanding its borders. Muslim Granada exemplified the idea of the Spanish melting pot, as Christian women became the mothers of Moorish Sultans, men who employed Christians as their personal bodyguards. Theirs was a kingdom in its death throes, weakened internally by infighting between fathers and sons, and among brothers rather than the lackluster attacks of Christian adversaries.

In this period, women whom we might think of as trapped behind harem walls played important roles. Their choices affected the history of the dynasty. One of the most influential women was Fatima, the heroine of Sultana and Sultana’s Legacy, who was the descendant of the first two rulers of the dynasty, sister to the next two, and ancestress of all who followed until the royal line ended with Isabel and Ferdinand’s capture of Granada in 1492. Then there were the Christian slaves Butayna and Maryam, the main characters of Sultana: Two Sisters whose rivalry extended beyond harem walls and toppled the legitimate ruler. With all the internal strife, dysfunctional family interactions and intrigue that beset the Nasrid Dynasty for centuries, I could not help but write about such a family.

There are other reasons why the history is so appealing. The past is usually the story of the victors, those left alive to chronicle events, and history too often becomes “his story”, the exploits of the men at the forefront of momentous change. Propaganda and biases on both sides of the Moorish and Christian frontiers make a full account difficult, but the contributions of Moorish society to the Spain we know today remain evident. In addition, the role of women and their impact merits greater exploration. My goal with the series is to shed light on a period that remains a mystery to many, while attempting to provide good and interesting stories.


These stories have required an enormous amount of research, which started back in 1995 when I was a junior in college. If there is an English language book about Moorish Spain, I have probably read or bought it in the last 18 years. While study was critical in writing the first books of the series, and I often return to the sources, I also remind myself that no one wants to read the history of the Nasrids; entertainment is the goal. There are elements of the past, Moorish culture and the language included to give a real sense of time and place, but not so much as to bog down the plot. I am a storyteller at heart, even if I lose countless hours on details that never make it on to the page.  

Lisa's website       

6 comments:

awriterofhistory.com said...

Your books sound fascinating, Lisa. Clearly you have found a period that has captivated you. One book that comes to mind is Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book. I'll have to have a look for your novels.

Lisa Yarde said...

Thank you. I love Geraldine Brooks, she really has a talent for world-building and character development.

laurenjohnson1 said...

This looks really interesting! Added to my reading list. The whole culture of harems is intriguing, and it's great to read that you believe the women within that world still had influence and power. I agree totally. Look forward to reading it.

Deborah Swift said...

This is a world few know anything about, so it's lovely to read about it. I've been writing about Moorish Spain too, so at some time we must compare bookshelves! I habve only just researched it in the last eighteen months, so you probably have a lot of books on your shelves I would like to sneak away with, Looking forward to reading this, but I'll start with the first one. Thanks for posting!

Lisa Yarde said...

Studying this period definitely changed my ideas about life in a harem. Its occupants were hardly the bored, idle women I once imagined. The struggle between the two historical figures on which I based the main characters was vicious and bloody.

Lisa Yarde said...

Yeah! Someone to share my obsession with. If you ever need help finding sources, please email me.