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4.3 out of 5 stars
The Sultan's Wife
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 17 May 2012
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I'm a sucker for anything Morocco-based, so I'd chosen this title based solely on the setting, with no prior knowledge of the author or her work. I was hoping for a bit of exotic escapism rather than necessarily expecting great literature - but this book delivers both in spades!

Jane Johnson's "Nus-Nus" is one of the most memorable protagonists I have come across in recent times. He is a noble and dignified hero, all the more human for his alternating strength and vulnerability. Johnson takes us deep into Nus-Nus's precarious life in the imperial court of 17th Century Meknes, where no one is safe from the erratic whims of the sultan and the only way to survive is maintain your mask at all times. The arrival of an Englishwoman to the sultan's harem presents a deeply dangerous challenge to Nus-Nus's carefully cultivated facade.

This is a highly memorable book, sensitively and beautifully written, and a completely immersive experience. It is that rarest thing, a novel that leaves you, on completion, with the feeling of having savoured an exquisite and satisfying meal: replete, sated, content, and with a definite taste for the author's work.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 4 June 2012
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The Sultan's Wife is set in Morocco in the year 1677 and is narrated by two different characters. The first is Nus-Nus, a eunuch slave in the palace of the Sultan Moulay Ismail and the second is Alys Swann, an Englishwoman who has been captured at sea by corsairs and given to the Sultan as a gift. Amidst the dangers and conspiracies of Ismail's court, Nus-Nus and Alys form a friendship and try to help each other survive.

I haven't read any of Jane Johnson's previous novels and chose to read this one purely because the setting sounded so interesting. I've never read a novel set in 17th century Morocco and I fell in love with the setting from the very first chapter. Everything was described so vividly, I wasn't surprised to find that the author lives in Morocco herself and has already written two other books set in the same country. I learned so many fascinating little facts about Moroccan history and culture and about the building of the historic city of Meknes (which was intended to rival Versailles). There are also a few chapters where the action moves to England and the court of Charles II in Restoration-period London. It was interesting to be shown the English court through the eyes of Nus-Nus and to see the ways in which it was both different and similar to the Moroccan court. But although there are lots of descriptions of food, clothing, furnishings etc, the pace of the story never slows down and there's always something happening.

Nus-Nus and Alys are fictional characters but Moulay Ismail, the Sultan, was a real person and is considered to be one of the cruelest rulers in history (one of his nicknames is 'the bloodthirsty'). This is something that Jane Johnson portrays very convincingly - based on some of the things he does in this novel, living in his household must have been a terrifying experience! Nus-Nus and the other slaves and courtiers are constantly in fear of their lives, knowing that they are at the mercy of his whim, and they have learned to be extra careful when they see him dressed in yellow as this indicates he's in a particularly murderous mood. Ismail's wife, Zidana, is also portrayed as a villain; a jealous, scheming person who uses poisons and witchcraft to attack her enemies.

Of the two narrators, I didn't find Alys Swann a very memorable character but I did really like Nus-Nus. In fact, he was the main reason why I enjoyed this book as much as I did. Nus-Nus was captured from his Senufo tribe as a young man and before coming to the Sultan's palace had spent some time assisting a British doctor who taught him to read and write and to speak English. These skills make him invaluable to both Ismail and Zidana and are the reason why he's in a position where he's able to befriend and help Alys. As a black slave and a eunuch, Nus-Nus is often treated unkindly by other members of the court, but still has a lot of dignity and courage. I thought he was a wonderful character.

The story does touch on some controversial subjects including slavery, racism and prejudice, torture and cruelty (some of the things described in the novel are very brutal and characters lose their lives in some gruesome ways) but I thought everything was handled sensitively. The only criticism I really have is that Alys didn't have a very distinctive voice; sometimes she didn't sound any different from Nus-Nus and I didn't immediately realise the narrator had changed. Apart from that, The Sultan's Wife was exciting, informative and swept me away to another time and place, which is what I'm always looking for in historical fiction. I loved it!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This book is a novel by Jane Johnson set in Morocco circa 1677. It tells the story of two characters Nus-Nus a palace eunuch taken into slavery from his Senufo tribe and Alys Swann an English woman captured by Moroccan corsairs (pirates) and presented as a gift to the Sultan Moulay Ismail, Emperor of Morocco.
Nus-Nus has spent some years travelling with a european doctor before finding himself at the Palace of the Sultan and as a result can speak and write in english and Moroccan arabic. This gives him certain advantages as the Sultan cannot read or write so he becomes his scibe and interpriter. He also does errands for Zidana the Sultans chief wife who is well known for her plotting, use of poisons and black magic. This indirectly gets Nus Nus into all kind of trouble ending up with him being accused of murder. When Alys arrives at the Palace alone and not knowing what will happen to her he befriends her and teaches her how to survive.
What follows is an adventure of palace intrigue as he tries to keep Alys alive and sane and free from the clutches of the Sultans chief wife who schemes and plots to maintain her position.
Enter the problem of Tangier, the main northerly port which is the territory of the English King (as part of his wife's dowry)and the desire of the Sultan to have control of all Moroccan land. Nus-Nus is ideally placed to act for the Sultan in dealings with the English Ambassador. Eventually to resolve differences a party is sent to England to meet the King and Nus-Nus is chosen to go. Now he plots to help Alys escape the palace and the attentions of Zidana the chief wife who is determined kill her. The story twists and turns and as usual I have no intention of spoiling the enjoyment of any prospective reader by telling it all now.
Having lived and worked in Morocco I found it an enjoyable read and full of local colour. It is well written and researched and whilst I do not condone the practices of slavery and barbarism, they happened and one cannot ignore what does not fit in with modern beliefs. The story deals with the subject with sensativity and whilst this is set over 300 years ago it is no worse than the butchery and cruelty of moden war and pleanty is written about that.
I am happy to recommend this book. I am sure you will find it an easy and satisfying read.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I read this book on holiday - and it was a good thing that I had plenty of time on my hands as I could not put it down.

The story revolves around two main characters - Nus-Nus, a black eunuch and Alys Swann and English woman captured whilst on her way to an arranged marriage.

Nus-Nus is a thoroughly likeable character and the author has been clever in her portrayal of Alys as too often female characters are portrayed as sickly sweet and unbelievable - not this time. The story is set in the court of the Sultan of Morocco and the author whisks you away to the country there and has you breathing in the heady scents of Moroccan life.

Set in the 1600's this book beautifully describes North Africa, its people and the grisly horror that was life at that time. I particularly enjoyed the part of the book where the characters spend time in London.

All in all this is much to commend it - perfect holiday reading.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 26 September 2012
This book is quite simply a MUST READ.

I was exhilarated by this glorious love story.

It opens in Morocco, then carries us right across Europe to the court of King Charles II, where the main character, Nus-Nus, collides with famous English luminaries of the time, including... well, no spoilers, I'll leave that to your imagination and discovery.

Apart from the beautiful writing craft and the page-turning narrative, it is the depth of authenticity that enthralls, demonstrating the power of drawing on personal experience.

It's very clear that English born author, Jane Johnson, not only adores her subject material but has lovingly researched it. On looking into her background, I've learned that she is married to a real Berber Tribesman and knows Morocco well, having spent months in situ. She even rode camel trains across the Sahara to experience the simple rhythms of daily life in the desert. I could almost smell the exotic fragrances, hear the cacophony of the Moroccan markets, feel the violent clash of war and excruciating pain of the vanquished, the loneliness of the endless dunes, the heat of the sun, and amidst it all, the tenderness of love.

And then there's the emotional core: She has it nailed. Most characters gradually disappear from the mind after a few months. But Nus-Nus has stayed with me, and my hope is that Jane Johnson will bring him back for another story.

This book could well be made into a movie. It certainly has the required quotient of passion. But in essence, the story simply held me spellbound, a gripping narrative that kept me reading until the light of dawn crept into my room as I finally turned the last page.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Morocco 1677. The Sultan, Moulay Ismail (a genuine historical figure and despot), is working hard to turn Meknes into the most extravagant palace on the planet. In order to complete the building work his ships intercept foreign boats off the Moroccan coast and capture the people aboard, turning them in to slaves and builders.

Alys Swann is one of these captives, but rather than being used as a builder she is taken as part of the Sultan's harem, and here becomes embroiled into the backstabbing and political machinations that are orchestrated by the Sultan's wife of the title.

She finds an unlikely ally in Nus Nus, the Sultan's scribe, a once proud royal member of an African tribe. When Nus Nus is framed for a murder and Alys's pregnancy incurs the wrath of the Sultan's wife, they quickly find that the only people they can trust are each other.

I read this book on holiday (coincidently in Morocco) and despite it not being my preferred genre I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's not without problems, there are reoccurring jarring point of view problems, Alys's narration is nowhere near as compelling as Nus Nus's, the denouement is close to Deux ex Machina, but none of them are enough to detract from the reading pleasure.

The evocation of place is flawless, there is a genuine sense of place and time, without having to resort to long passages of descriptive writing. Nus Nus is a hugely compelling and well written character. The pace of the book is perfect. There is much to enjoy here and next time I go on holiday I will look up Jane Johnson's other novels because this was about as perfect a holiday read as you can imagine.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
First I must say how much I enjoyed reading this book. Being familiar with Morocco, it evoked many happy times for me, if sometimes I thought the references might not carry as well for one who does not know the area. A character remarks that a London street smells worse than the Fez tanneries; to appreciate the fullness of the observation, one has to know the Fez tanneries.

This is a very minor quibble in an excellent book. It is set in 1677, during the reigns of Mulay Ismael, Louis XIV and Charles II but of course we are mostly concerned with Mulay Ismael. The plot is devious, fast-paced and exciting to follow, travelling the length of Morocco and then to London. It darts hither thither with ease and comfort and I never had to turn back a page to see how the characters came to be where they were.

The protagonists leap off the page, fully-fleshed and believable. The main characters, led by Nus-Nus the eunuch, engaged me from the start. The Sultan's Court has all the intrigue and danger one could wish for; even the walk-on parts are well-drawn and have a useful role. There is enough description of clothes and food (oh, Moroccan food, drool!) to satisfy without it becoming a wardrobe list or a menu. The heroine, Alys, known poetically as the White Swan, lacks the vitality of the other characters but this is not a serious flaw and she is not just a lettuce leaf to dress the plate. The villains are energetic in trying to achieve their ends without being pantomime.

The descriptive narrative is good, concise without being bald and I was not aware of page-fill, that tedious writing habit so prolific these days. No word is wasted and this isn't a novel to be skimmed in a Sunday afternoon. The dialogue flows very well. The story is told in the first person, from the viewpoint of Nus-Nus and then of Alys, and it works. I am not a great fan of the first-person technique but it is very successful here.

What else can I say? I enjoyed it immensely and recommend it wholeheartedly.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is the first book by Jane Johnson that I have read, and also the first book set in Morroco.

My research on the author finds that although english born she is married to a real berber tribeman, and now splits her time between Morroco and England. The inspiration for her first novel 'Tenth Gift' following research into a Barbary Pirate abduction in 1625 where she met her husband in 2005.

I think that this gives the book authenticity and reliable historical facts, I hope so.

I would describe this book as historical romance fiction, which for me made the 600 or so pages easier to digest.

I would think this would make an excellent choice for any reading groups out there looking for something a bit different.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 17 October 2013
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. From the opening pages the author plunges us into an exotic and unfamiliar world – unfamiliar to us, that is. We know from the start that we are in the hands of a writer who is completely at home with her setting.

The action takes place in seventeenth century Morocco, at the court of the Sultan Moulay Ismael. Johnson is adept at employing all our senses to create her scene. Visually, she gives us a picture of luxury and colour, contrasted with extreme squalor. She conjures up the scents and tastes of exotic perfumes and pungent spices and the sound of rain, or music – or the screams of men under torture.
It is a country subject to the whims of the sultan, built on slavery and terror; but also a place where beauty is prized and art and trade flourish.

In her two central characters Johnson has created people who grab our interest from the outset and our hearts very quickly afterwards. Nus Nus is a slave and a eunuch, but he is also a man of courage and integrity, capable great kindness. Over the course of the story we see him develop from a fatalistic acceptance of his position and the terrible wrong that has been done him to a man capable of becoming the warrior his tribe would have made him had he not been captured. At the same time, we learn that fighting is not in his true nature. Given a free choice he would be a musician, a talent that is to stand him in good stead as the story progresses. He is also highly intelligent. Originally bought by an English doctor, who treated him more like an apprentice than a slave, he has been taught to read and write in several languages, talents which have brought him to a position close to the Sultan. It is part of his job to keep the 'couching book' which requires him to witness and record the sultan's sexual encounters with his many concubines, in order to keep track of any issue and their place in the succession. Seeing how he grows from this position of humiliation to a man with his pride restored is one of the great pleasures of this book.

The second character is Alys, an Englishwoman captured by corsairs and given to the Sultan as a concubine. Ismael is captivated by her fair beauty, but before being taken to his bed she must convert to Islam. She refuses and it is Nus Nus who is given the task of persuading her, knowing that if he fails both their lives will be forfeit. In the process, he falls in love with her himself and is then forced to witness her violent rape by Ismael. A child comes of the union and Alys is transformed. Having reached the age of twenty-four unmarried she has almost given up hope of ever being a mother and her devotion to little 'Momo' is total. The main plot of the book turns on the efforts of Alys and Nus Nus to preserve his life from the jealousy of Zidana, the sultan's chief wife.

In Zidana and Ismael Johnson has created two characters to stand in stark contrast to her hero and heroine. Ismael is pathologically unstable, given to fits of uncontrollable rage in which he kills and maims without compunction, and which he seems to forget immediately afterwards. Zidana is a monster, in size and character. Clever, sly and ruthless she is an expert in poisons and a believer in the Black Arts. Between the two of them Nus Nus and Alys must steer a perilous course.

Half way through the book the scene switches to Restoration London and once again Johnson sets the scene masterfully. The city is still recovering from the Great Fire and we see the contrast between the great swathes that are still ruined and the magnificent new buildings that are rising amid the desolation. The royal palaces are as opulent as Ismael's but in a very different style. Portraits and tapestries showing scenes of life replace the abstract designs allowed by Islam and the women, by contrast with the all-enveloping clothing of the Moroccan ladies, flaunt their bosoms for all to see. Johnson has fun demonstrating how easily some of the Moroccan embassy are seduced by this new lifestyle. We are introduced to a number of people familiar from the history books, like Nell Gwynne and Samuel Pepys. But here, as in Morocco, Nus Nus and Momo are in constant danger.
There are enough plot twists and cliff-hangers to keep the reader avidly turning the pages. A truly satisfying read.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 11 May 2012
Having read and enjoyed The Tenth Gift by the same author, I was looking forward to the publication of this novel. Set slightly later in the 17th Century, it's written partly in the first and partly in the third person, a tricky feat, but which Johnson carries off very well indeed.

The central character is Nus-Nus, a black eunuch in the Arabic court of the Sultan of Morocco. He's a deeply attractive and nuanced character who from the first page lives in constant fear of his life - not just from his master, but from others in the court. Despite this, he possesses a well of courage that helps to endure his lot. However, when he meets Alys Swann, an Englishwoman sold into the sultan's harem (and another main character), his life changes forever.

This book is full of intrigue, deceit, skulduggery and murder. It has romance in it, but also heartbreak and personal tragedy. It's deeply evocative of North Africa - the sights, the smells, the culture, but there are also great depictions of London at the time, and the court of Charles II. I really enjoyed it, most especially because of Nus-Nus, a well-drawn, stand out character who deserves to appear in another tale.

Ben Kane, author of Spartacus: The Gladiator.
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