Sicily, 1149 A.D. The Second Crusade has just ended in the Christians' defeat. The balance of power between the Western empires and the Arab world is unsettled. Thurstan Beauchamp, a young man of Norman heritage, serves King Roger of Sicily as Purveyor of Pleasures and Shows a traveling entertainment scout. In his not-so-public role as purse bearer, he also conveys official bribes. When his supervisor, the insightful, secretive Arab Yusuf Ibn Mansur, sends him to buy herons for the king's falcons to chase, Thurstan discovers a troupe of Anatolian musicians and belly dancers and arranges their performance at court in Palermo. Then, on a political errand, he encounters Lady Alicia, a wealthy young widow whom he'd loved when both were teenagers. Blinded by promises of love, marriage and land, Thurstan becomes an unwitting pawn in an assassination plot designed to destroy the kingdom he respects.
Three times shortlisted for the Booker Prize and 1992 co-winner for Sacred Hunger, Barry Unsworth never writes the same novel twice. The British-born author, who now lives in Italy, scatters his stories throughout time and geography. His 15th novel, The Ruby in Her Navel, takes readers to a 12th-century Mediterranean pulsing with political, religious and racial tensions. Do a young man's hopes to claim a knighthood stand a chance when ambitious men are all too ready to sacrifice others' desires for their own plots and goals? Any human life lies in the future as well as in the past, Thurstan says. It also lies in what one cannot see and the reader, being less innocent, will glimpse some of Thurstan's future before he does. But that only adds suspense and keeps the reader alert, knowing that harm will befall our courtly narrator, but unsure of its precise nature and how he will respond. In the early chapters, Unsworth's dense sentences require close reading, but the effort reveals a story of the past with parallels to our own present and future.
Every year, a traveling friend brings Leslie Budewitz a jar of capers from Sicily.