This literate, fascinating novel takes place in the turbulent Mediterranean world of the 12th century. It's a chaotic time, as Muslims and Christians skirmish for territorial advantage and the borders between the Muslim and Christian worlds constantly shift. In the kingdom of Sicily, Muslims and Christians live in uneasy alliance under the rule of King Roger, a tolerant monarch whose public goal is an open and peaceful society. But the ambitions of others always undermine such efforts, and the ambitions of Unsworth's hero are no exception. Thurstan Beauchamp is a Norman knight who is forced to serve under a high Muslim official in the King's government. He's the purveyor of the King's amusements, a role that sends him far and wide to find new entertainment for his King. Thurstan has never gotten over the loss of his chance to become a true knight in service to the King, and Thurstan's naive view of his King as a shining ruler leads him to become the unwitting pawn of the powers at court.
Nothing is as it seems, and Unsworth slowly reveals twists and turns of plot in a way that reminded me of Umberto Eco. It's inevitable that Thurstan is tempted into betraying his mentor, the victim of his own failed ambitions of knighthood. As it turns out, Thurstan has been the one betrayed, but luckily the sultry Nesrin presents him with an escape.
The title and cover of this book are a bit misleading, as Nesrin is a minor player in the drama until the very end. Marketers had the final say, no doubt. I'm a big fan of Unsworth, but in this story I thought he was a bit too enamoured of his clever plot, and Thurstan is hard to like. But I found the Christian/Muslim theme particularly relevan--neither side comes off all that well, and the description of the recent disastrous Crusade was gruesome. Unsworth is a serious literate writer--"Ruby" is not his best, but it's well worth it for Unsworth fans.