Four Sisters, All Queens
From Publishers Weekly
“Jones’s impeccable eye for detail and beautifully layered plot–each sister narrates her side of the story in alternating chapters–makes this not only a standout historical, but an impressive novel in its own right, regardless of genre.”
Beatrice of Savoy, Countess of Provence (1205–65) was determined to raise her daughters to advance the House of Savoy, and how better to do so than to arrange marriages with that goal in mind? In this entertaining novel, Jones (The Jewel of Medina) tells the story of four sisters who became queens—Marguerite (France), Eleanor (England), Sanchia (Germany), and Beatrice (Sicily). All were married young, none had any say in their marriages, and their lives, told here in alternating chapters, were eventful. The author does a good job not only of conveying the very different personalities and circumstances of the sisters but also of showing how little power these queens often had over the things that mattered most to them. Family trees help to keep track of the large number of characters.
Verdict Fans of historical fiction about European royalty (e.g., Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl) should enjoy this well-written novel set during fascinating times. The relationship among the sisters is believable and often heartbreaking.—Elizabeth Mellett, Brookline P.L., MA
Sarah Johnson at Reading the Past calls FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS a “sparkling literary epic”:
Family and politics are inextricably tangled in Sherry Jones’s Four Sisters, All Queens, which examines feminine power in 13th-century England and Europe. One could expect no less in a novel about the four daughters of the resolute Beatrice of Savoy, Countess of Provence, who narrates the prologue. Marguerite, Eléonore, Sanchia, and Beatrice may not have been the only quartet of sisters to become queens, but they may have left the grandest legacy, having shaped their world both with and without their husbands’ support.
Each chapter of this sparkling literary epic starts by listing the viewpoint, location, year, and age of each protagonist. This makes it easy to keep track of events, which proceed from Marguerite’s adolescence in 1233 through her middle age in 1271. She has the distinction of achieving her mother’s aspirations first, becoming queen to France’s Louis IX.
Despite Marguerite’s status, being married to an overly pious mama’s boy and future saint is no walk in the park, especially when her proud and jealous mother-in-law, the “White Queen” Blanche de Castille, denigrates her and refuses to let them consummate their marriage. “She simply loves power too much to share it with a husband. Or with her son, I hear,” Marguerite is warned before her coronation. Clever and clear-sighted, Marguerite demonstrates her bravery while fighting for her promised dowry: her Provençal homeland.
All four girls are reminded by their mother that “family comes first,” a theme that repeats throughout the book, but it’s Eléonore’s husband who exemplifies this most publicly. Kind but weak, Henry III of England angers his barons by placing Eléonore’s Savoyard uncles and his own Lusignan half-brothers in high posts. A determined woman who aims to prove herself to her adopted country, Eléonore knows her husband adores her but is forced to endure the label of “foreigner” and raise her family in an unwelcoming place.
Sanchia and Beatrice don’t marry kings but the younger brothers of their elder sisters’ husbands and are caught up in their battles to gain crowns of their own. Shy, beautiful Sanchia fails to achieve her greatest desire. She longs for the convent but, to please her family, weds a man who spouts such affectionate lines as “Love is the delicate oil, but marriage the vinegar.” Beatrice, to her surprise, finds that her husband’s ambitions neatly mirror hers, but one of her father’s actions sets her up for a lifelong conflict with her eldest sister. With Marguerite’s and Eléonore’s personalities so forceful, it would be easy for her and Sanchia to fade into the background, but both have a vivid presence on the page.
Each woman has a hard road to tread; throughout their lives, they achieve small triumphs but meet with many setbacks. Their tale not only encompasses sibling rivalry but its accompanying struggles for political supremacy and also religious intolerance, with both England’s Jews and France’s Cathars meeting with much worse than ordinary prejudice. Put simply, this isn’t a happy story overall, but Jones stays refreshingly true to the realism of the age while depicting each courageous woman’s unsung heroism.
Rather than producing a standard family saga, she focuses on the sisters’ generation and their emotional connections over time. While this makes the large cast more manageable for the reader, their many children can feel blurred and indistinct as a result – even the future monarchs among them. (Henry and Eléonore’s beloved daughter Katherine is a memorable exception.) The genealogical charts at the beginning are numerous and necessary.
The action sweeps from the magnificent cathedrals of northern France to the Egyptian port of Damietta on the bloody Seventh Crusade to the glittering chill of Aachen, Germany, but the impressions the women formed in their childhood home, with its troubadours and trobairitz and “days of wine and poetry,” continue to influence them. The novel’s elegant language has a subtle lyricism about it, as if to emphasize that they carry Provence with them wherever they go.
From Darlene Williams HF Reviews — FIVE STARS (Exceptional):
Sherry Jones illuminates four sisters history has mostly relegated to the mists or infamy. Her impressive insight into the vagarities of each sister as they face challenges and, occasionally, joy brings the sisters to life in a vital way. I especially enjoyed reading about the Savoy sisters, as this is a new era for me.
The lifetimes of the Savoy sisters was a complicated epoch of war, rebellions, reconciliations, betrayals, conspiracies, bravery, cruelty, misunderstandings and regrets. Sherry Jones excels at piecing the puzzle together and pulls no punches about revealing less than favorable characteristics, along with admirable strengths.
From Fresh Fiction:
Beatrice of Savoy has big ideas for her four daughters. She intends for them to all emerge queens. Although Beatrice tells her daughters to place family before wealth, only time will tell whether or not her daughters have taken this advice to heart.
Readers will get to know each daughter individually, the story is told from their alternating viewpoints. Each daughter has her own faults and personality. It might seem like being Queen would be a fun job, but Sherry Jones portrays the job as difficult and deceptive. As the daughters turn on one another and display sibling rivalry to the fullest you will become engrossed in the story.
Due to the detail that Sherry Jones gives you, it will be easy to imagine the lavish lifestyles and cutthroat rivalry of the sisters. The clear disregard for women in the thirteenth century is obvious and the mannerisms are perfect for that century. Ms. Jones captures the feel of the tension-filled thirteenth century and brings it to readers.
Though you may already know the ending to Four Sisters, All Queens, Jones makes it feel like something you haven’t heard of before.
If you are a history buff, or know someone who is, Four Sisters, All Queens is not to be missed.
From Diary of a Book Addict::
Wow, just wow -where do I start with this? Four Sisters, All Queens is an excellent book, especially if you are more of a history nerd than a romance fan (that would be me). This novel is incredibly well-concocted, from the incredibly detailed historical research to the incredible writing style that perfectly weaves fact with fiction. All of the sisters are given a unique voice, and plenty of unique plot lines that give each of them their own struggle to overcome. Yet the true remains -they are still sisters, and even though politics can threaten to pull them apart, they still share the same blood….
This book hits all the right notes when it comes to a page-turning historical fiction novel that sheds light on fascinating women in history. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
From Book Nerds:
I am in love with this author! I have been reading this book non stop since it came to my door. I have even woken up in the middle of the night to read more because I could not get the Queens off my mind. In my review I have SPOILERS about our Queens. I am so excited about this book that I am talking like crazy about it. lol! So if you have not read the book, read my blog and I pray it causes you to run out and buy it right away. If you could not tell I have given this book 6 stars!!
From The Bookshelf:
Four Sisters was an interesting fictional insight into a remarkable family and the sisters who ruled the world for a time. At the very least, it succeeded in making me curious enough about the Provençal sisters to read more about them when the opportunity presents itself. Historical fiction lovers, this one is definitely for you. Between the clandestine romances, heaving bodices, courtly drama, and extensive historical research, this book presents an entertaining imagining of these queens, first and foremost sisters.
Unique is one word I would use to describe this book. Unique in that while I read this beautifully written story, I was learning something. Ms. Jones does a remarkable job at teaching you about the public lives of these women while taking you into their personal, behind-the-throne lives. You might ask ‘where is the romance’? It’s there, trust me, and on a level I can honestly say I’m not used to. While there are no heaving bosoms, no throes of passion, this is a story about how and why these women come love these men, their kings, their husbands.
Family first is their motto. Ms. Jones does a remarkable job showing what that means to each woman. She shows what each gives up in order to help their husbands and their children. Sacrifice, political intrigue, romance, murder plots all intertwined together to leave you admiring these strong women. And they are strong. Ms. Jones has a way of describing a scene, right down to the lavish meals and rich clothing, without droning on and on. There are no boring, lets skip past this moments in the book. I honestly could not put it down.
Captivating, breathtaking, splendid, those are just a few words to describe this wonderfully written novel. The heat level is a 0, but trust me when I say this book doesn’t require heaving bosoms and throes of passion in the traditional sense. Ms. Jones shows you the love, adoration and passion between the queens and their kings, but in a very exceptional and exquisite way. You’ll just have to read it to understand what I mean!
From Layered Pages – FIVE STARS:
Have you ever read stories you enjoyed so much that when you sat down to gather your thoughts, you didn’t know where to begin? Or it seems that anything you want to say or write doesn’t quite do it justice? I feel this way about Four Sisters, All Queens. I don’t believe there is anything I dislike about this story except that it ended!
This poignant and powerful story is about four extraordinary sisters. Who-due to their mother’s ambition-became queens. What is so intriguing about them is their distinctive personalities and how they shaped and molded Europe during a fascinating time in history.
There are several complex issues happening in this story but Sherry gives us a perfectly balanced and evenly paced story that will keep you enthralled to the very end.
Sherry does a wonderful job capturing the culture of the era, so good, in fact that one can tell she did extensive research. Historical accuracies is what avid readers of Historical Fiction such as myself want to see. I highly recommend this story to all.
Blanche of Castile is a woman used to power. Granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Blanche learned much at the knee of her grandmother. When she is widowed, she learns that a woman’s power doesn’t always lie in her beauty as her Grandmother taught her. Blanche must prove her pure heart and fight for the throne of France. Her cunning nature and her determination make her a formidable force as she fights for the Crown of France.
Jones balances Blanche’s strengths against her foe’s weaknesses. Readers will be amazed as the beautiful Blanche becomes a lion for her son and France. While almost heartless and extremely harsh in her actions, one can easily sympathize with the embattled Blanche. While Blanche remains the villainess that history remembers her as, I enjoyed seeing the world through Blanche’s eyes.
Very Great novella!!
- Musings of a Book Junkie
Four Stars: This short novella is a prequel to Sherry Jones’ Four Sisters All Queens. It covers Blanche of Castile, who becomes the mother-in-law to Marguerite, one of the Four Sister Queens, who marries her son, Louis and becomes Queen of France. Blanche of Castile is not my favorite character in history. She was kind of a mean person, especially to her daughter-in-law. She was uber religious and took it to quite the extreme and passed that on to her son, Louis.
Even though this book did not make me like her anymore, it made me see where she was coming from at least. Jones writes Blanche of Castile in such a way that you understand her motivation and why she was the way that she was. Blanche is just one of those characters that you love to hate!
I really liked this prequel and it made me excited to read Four Sisters All Queens.
Bottom line: This is a great novella about a great villain!
- A Bookish Affair
King Louis VIII has died and Queen Blanche de Castille has discovered disturbing news surrounding his death. Blanche’s son becomes King and they face many enemies all around them who wants the crown for themselves. Who can they trust? Will Blanche be able to save her sons crown and their lives? I haven’t read a whole lot about Queen Blanche de Castille. Author Sherry Jones has sparked an interest in me to learn more about her. From what I read from this story. She was a beautiful and courageous women and that is rare during her time. White Heart is a wonderful and entertaining story! A must read!
– Layered Pages
After the death of her husband, King Louis VIII of France, Blanche of Castille is distraught by grief over the loss of her love, but knows she must remain strong and prepare for the battle that’s to come to retain control of the crown for her young son. Against the odds and a multitude of enemies, both home and abroad, who have no intention of being ruled by a women or a young boy, Blanche prevails over her foes by relying on her courage, strength, passion and cunning. She truly exudes the traits of her grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine! A concise 40 page ebook, White Heart effectively portrays a vital time in France’s history and Blanche’s life, as well as, sets the stage for the story of her son Louis IX and his wife Marguerite who are featured in Four Sisters, All Queens. I found it to be very well-written and thought that Jones did a fabulous job of bringing the character of Blanche to life, especially given the short length that she had to accomplish it. I can never get enough of reading about powerful women who triumph over the men who seek to control and dominate her and Blanche definitely is one of those. Her bravery and pluck is something to be inspired by! White Heart is the perfect precursor to Sherry’s novel Four Sisters, All Queens and I highly recommend it!
– Passages to the Past
In this novella prequel to Four Sisters, All Queens, author Sherry Jones tackles the story of Blanche de Castille, the White Queen of France, and mother-in-law of one of the four sister-queens. Blanche has built her life on the advice of her grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine, though she finds that such advice tends to run thin under distress. When Blanche’s husband, King Louis VIII turns up dead, she must navigate a treacherous court mired in politics and ambition to place her young son on the throne, protect France -and her own honor. From the very first word up to the last, I was completely entranced by this story. Every single sentence felt like it was carefully crafted with purpose and elegance. Author Sherry Jones offers readers a glimpse into the past that’s unlike just about any other historical novel out there. Her attention to detail is impeccable, but not so laborious that it weighs down the plot or characters and lends just enough for readers to get a vivid view of the period. Jones does an incredible job of bringing Blanche to life on the page. Most importantly, Blanche was not portrayed as a one-dimensional character who is driven by blind ambition, but also managed to have true human emotions that make her an honest and real character. Other characters seemed a tiny bit underdeveloped, but this novella was so short that these characters didn’t get as much “screen time” to entirely take on lives of their own. Despite that, I devoured White Heart. As a historical fiction nerd, it was fascinating to read about such a strong and compelling woman in the midst of a world filled with enemies. The only real issue I had is that it’s too short (I know it’s a novella, but still). I wanted to read more about Blanche and her story -and how she overcame it all. Can’t wait to check out Four Sisters, All Queens in May.
– Diary of a Book Addict
The Sword Of Medina
(Starred Review) This able novel, sequel to Jones’s controversial bestseller The Jewel of Medina, continues to examine the history of Islam, a topic unfamiliar to most Americans. Jones imbues her 7th century tale with rich personalities and honorable motives, following a course of events that most Muslims can agree on, taking place between Muhammed’s death and the reign of the first four Rightly-Guided Caliphs. Aside from the taboo of depicting a fictional Muhammed, Jones also skrits controversy with sexual tension between A’isha (child bride and favorite wife of Muhammed) and her cousin Talha, described with romance-novel breathlessness. Still, Jones largely sticks to what is known, rendering characters human without any irreverence. Sharing narration with A’isha is her brother-in-law Ali; the two tell vastly different versions of events, beginning with Muhammed’s death and culminating in a battle led by A’isha against Ali. Jones handles skillfully the adversaries’ peculiar combination of mutual respect and enmity; the rest of her fictionalized history comes alive with delicate, determined prose. Fortunately for readers, this volume was saved by Beaufort after Muslim extremists forced editors at Random House to pull the plug, making this not just a rollicking lesson in Islamic history but a victory over the forces of censorship.
– Publishers Weekly
From Raging Bibliomania:
Picking up where her first book, The Jewel of Medina, left off, Sherry Jones invites us back into the life of A’isha bint Abi Bakar, the prophet Muhammad’s favorite wife and child bride. Following Muhammad’s death from the Medina fever, his followers are left bereft. When A’isha’s father Abu Bakar steps into the role of Khalifa (spiritual leader of the Muslims), things are far from peaceful because various factions are not satisfied with this solution. Unhappiness and rumors rage throughout the camp, leaving A’isha caught in the middle. The unrest grows when tragedy befalls her father, for there are many wishing to replace him. One of the hopefuls is A’isha’s hated nemesis, Ali, who was once a close companion to Muhammad. A’isha will do almost anything to keep the position out of Ali’s hands, though she soon comes to find that the others jockeying for position are no more palatable. As various men try their hands at being Khalifa, rage erupts in the camp and it is up to A’isha and Ali to prevent their struggling religion from being destroyed by war, greed, and nepotism. Both intricate and timely, The Sword of Medina painstakingly exposes this most pressing and engulfing time in history.
Just over a year ago, I had the distinct pleasure of reviewing Sherry Jones provocative and thoughtful historical novel, The Jewel of Medina. Though I mostly enjoyed the book, I harbored questions as to the legitimacy of the prophet Muhammad’s intense love of women. Sherry, eager to share her collected information regarding this subject, wrote me a beautiful post addressing my question and helped me to more fully understand Muhammad’s interest in the fairer sex. I was both surprised and honored to hear from her again a few months ago when she asked me if I would like the opportunity to read and review her next work in the series, The Sword of Medina. I accepted eagerly because I was very interested in finding out what had transpired with A’isha after Muhammad’s unexpected death, and I was pleased to become enmeshed in the continuing saga of A’isha Bint Bakar.
First of all, I felt that Sherry did a magnificent job of highlighting the political and religious turmoil that raged throughout Muhammad’s encampment after his death. There were a lot of very unhappy people plotting and scheming during that time, and the author did a great job of canvasing the many groups who had their own ideas about the future of Islam. The tension that she created throughout these sections was palpable and it was clear to me why A’isha was so troubled by the direction that Muhammad’s legacy had taken. A lot of A’isha’s time and energy went towards smoothing the ruffled feathers of the people and trying to stay one step ahead of the roiling mass of unhappiness that was spreading over the camp. I felt that A’isha was torn between the desire to keep her people happy and her overwhelming urge to prevent Muhammad’s wishes for his people to be tainted.
I also thought that the relationship between A’isha and Ali was written with precision and believability. Ali harbored much anger and resentment towards A’isha, just as she did for him, but there were moments when the ideals and beliefs of the two were very similar, which highlighted the contradiction between their feelings and their beliefs. Towards the conclusion of the book, A’isha’s eyes are opened in regards to Ali and she is able to see that his wishes are not so alien from her own, a fact that does much to quell her fear for the uncertain path of Islam. I liked the scenes between these two characters because I felt that both characters were able to admire each other privately while still being headstrong and clashing every time they interacted, which gave a profound depth to their relationship.
In the first book, much of the action centered around Muhammad’s wives and their struggles amongst themselves for peace. This book was much more focused on the path that Islam took after the death of its founder. There was much political intrigue in this second book, which I appreciated because it gave me a frame of reference and an insider’s peek into the problems that plagued a religion without a strong leader. There were some very developed battle scenes in the book as well, which served to highlight the Muslim’s quest for acceptance and honor among tribes of non-believers. The crux of the battle towards the conclusion of the book sharply delineated the power struggle between A’isha and Ali, and was, I felt, a very moving conflict between the two.
The only small quibble I had with the book was the abundance of characters that jostled for space among the story. There was a very large cast of characters, which I felt was a little overwhelming at times, but I really don’t see how any of the players could have been excised from the story without creating a gaping hole in the narrative. At times it was a little confusing to keep all the players straight, but as I became more in tune with the story, it got a bit easier for me to sort things out.
This was a very satisfying conclusion to the story that I had read a year ago and I think Sherry created a very precise and detailed story that many readers have had little exposure to. If you enjoyed The Jewel of Medina I think that that this book would make a great read for you, though I might not advise picking up this tale without having read the first. I enjoyed this second book greatly and think that for those curious about the rise and spread of Islam, these books would make enlightening reading.
The Jewel of Medina
An Author’s Response to a Previous Review from Raging Bibliomania:
Last month I reviewed The Jewel of Medina, a historical fiction novel that dealt with the Prophet Muhammad and his child bride Aisha. Although I found the book interesting and timely, I had some quibbles with the plot and characterizations. Mostly I was concerned with the portrayal of Muhammad, which I felt was somewhat dubious. After posting the review, the books author, Sherry Jones, was kind enough to send me an e-mail which answered many puzzling questions I had regarding the book. I thought I would share this e-mail, as I found it both enlightening and edifying.
Thank you for reviewing “The Jewel of Medina.” I’m glad you enjoyed it for what it is: An enlightening tale of the origins of Islam, and a story about the difficulties of harem life.
Zibilee, my portrayal of Muhammad as a sexual man is accurate according to the Islamic traditions. One tradition tells how Muhammad had intercourse with all his wives every night, and ends, “Allah gave him the strength of twenty men.” Some traditions say he had as many as 20 wives at one time, although I could only verify a total of 12 in his harem. Those of us who grew up with Christianity are so used to separating spirituality from sexuality that we have a hard time holding both in the same container. But, as the Tantric tradition demonstrates, the two can — and, perhaps, should — be intertwined.
Many books have been written about Muhammad the military strategist, etc. My goal was to tell about the women behind the man — his domestic life — and to portray the difficulties of life in the harem. It seems that you picked up on these difficulties. My information came from the Islamic traditions as well as many books about Muhammad and his wives.
And yes, the hype surrounding “The Jewel of Medina” has set readers up for disappointment. Things weren’t supposed to be like this, but I can’t do anything about it. I can only hope that, in time, the controversy will fade and people can approach the book for what it’s intended to be: A love story, a book about women’s obstacles and women’s empowerment, a look at the origins of Islam through the eyes of one woman, and a bridge-builder, showing us in this culture that Muslims are people, too, and that its leader was a man of compassion and gentleness.
I love to see my book discussed for its contents and not for the controversy. As a noted Italian literary critic said to me, “The scandal is nothing. The book is everything!”
The Jewel of Medina
From Siempre Leyendo
Synopsis: Aisha, favourite wife of the Prophet Muhammad, isn’t made for a life of imprisonment and submission to men. She has a head of her own and longs for a life of freedom and equality. This brings her into trouble numerous times during her life from age 6 on, when she is promised to Muhammad, until 19, when her beloved husband dies. Nevertheless, Aisha learns to control her emotions and use her wits to convince Muhammad and the people around her of the value of listening to women.
I was quite skeptical about this book at first. Sherry Jones isn’t a Muslim; she has never lived in the Arabic world. Furthermore someone said to me she feared it must be horrible kitsch. However, I was positively surprised. Jones writes in the appendix what she has made up and what is historically proven. She explains her intentions and goals and writes about the difficulties of getting her book published, how Bllantines, a group of Random House, refused to do so out of fear of terrorist attacks (without having received any threats, that is). But also how she received support form moderate Muslims who thought it important to publish fiction about Muhammad and Islam. I’m very curious about the sequel which is supposed to cover the first Islamic war told form the view of Ali (a figure revered by the Shiites) and Aisha. I think Jones is doing a very important thing here, bringing Islam into mainstream culture, far from terrorism and war.
Here’s a review of my Dec. 4 lecture at Carroll College in Helena, Mont., by a reporter for the Carroll Prospector:
Controversial author speaks: Jewel of Medina: Too hot for Carroll
By Samatha Tappe, Lead Writer
Riding on the back of Carroll’s newly adopted “Speaker’s Policy,” Sherry Jones pranced onto campus without har-ness. Author of the controversial new book, Jewel of Medina, Jones came to discuss self-censorship in a presentation entitled “To Hot for Random House: The Jewel of Medina.”
Refreshingly approachable, wearing a completely out of place black cocktail dress, and consistently over-acting her pre-typed speech, Jones was the most inspiring thing to come to Carroll in some time.
“My name is Sherry Jones,” she began, “but I’ve been called a lot of other things these past few months.”
Not the least of which are “Islamopanderer,” “sugar-coater of pedophilia” “dirty sex worker” and “world’s most dangerous author.”
Jones’ impressive repertoire of inflated nicknames was collected scandalously close to the book’s release, leading Jones to believe that most of her insult-hurling critics didn’t even read it. While she admittedly enjoys “pushing the envelope,” she genuinely seems to be confused about the hubbub.
The book intends to personify the youngest wife of the Prophet Mohammad, 6-year-old A’isha. To properly introduce the world to A’isha, Jones fictionalized parts of the story in order to bring her to life. That, along with purported soft-core pornographic content, seemed to be the base of said hubbub.
In all fairness, Jones is upfront about the parts she fictionalized, and calls the book historical fiction. And the “soft-core pornography” is A’isha’s account of witnessing some neighbors having sex. Blunted by the innocence of a six-year-old’s description, the scene is more comical than scandalous.
More than once during the hour, however, it seemed the title of the presentation could be changed to “Sherry Jones: Too Hot for Carroll College.”
She told a red-faced crowd of college boys and elderly ladies alike, “There are no sex scenes in my book, unless you count A’isha glimpsing a couple in the copulatory act, which to her six-year-old’s eyes resembles a hairy goat’s bladder ball slamming into a flailing squashed beetle.”
Insert deafening silence, then hysterics; the mark of a truly shocked crowd. The laughter was indiscriminate of age, gender or religion. Only Jones could manage to make a crowd love being that uncomfortable.
Jones’ unabashed lack of inhibition is not practiced, and she obviously lost her compass in trying to navigate the delicacy of being in the public eye – all to the most wonderfully awkward and touching effect.
The Jewel of Medina gave Jones something to stand up and talk about. The book should surely be appreciated, but Jones is the real story. A woman who lives her values in a truly compulsory way, Jones will remember your name, respond to your emails, and never forget the time she spent at small newspapers.
The Books I Done Read, Seven Caterpillar Review
Sometimes I’ll throw books onto my library request queue (all of which I had to cancel today, since we’re moving in a week and I already have some 8 books out, and I was 3rd on the list for The Virgin’s Lover!!!) and then when it comes in months later, be all Why did I request that? I only get X number of free requests per year (ok, 50, which is loads, but I’m a total hoarder) so I only save them for books I’m dying to read, or for books that aren’t going to be checked in again until 2090, at which point I’ll be dead/raving/able to read by telekenesis.
All that to say that when I went to pick up The Jewel of Medina, I was all, Ok self-of-two-months-ago, you know best. And it wasn’t azmazing. I mean, historical fiction is totally my shit, and foreign-fiction (i.e. bathrobe-travelling) is also up my alley, so a book set in Mecca (and then Medina, and then the desert for a bit, and then Mecca again) circa 627 CE, is defs my cup of tea. Especially when that book involves a man with TEN WIVES! Just think of the drama that ensues when your harem is ten large.
It also wasn’t total garbage. The language is a bit ‘scandal blew on the errant wind’ for me, but the story is engaging enough that all the adjectives sort of fade into the background after a while. The child-bride protagonist, A’isha, keeps trying to win her husband’s love with jealous fits, but the girl is something like nine when they get married, and nine-year-olds are idiots. Only sometimes does she get all, I learned a powerful lesson that day, that love is not only a feeling but also something that you do, etc etc etc for a paragraph or so, and then falls right back in to bitching about her co-wives and their voluptuous bosoms.
It took me about half the book to realize why I’d snagged it. THE CONTROVERSY, y’all! The ten wives are the wives of the Prophet Muhammed!! And some of them are painted a bit trashy, and Muhammed doesn’t always come out looking awesome, and anytime you make historical (holy) figures into real people with beards and lusty eyes who collect wives like monogrammed spoons, you’re going to run into some hate-mongering. Which Jones did, a leetle bit before Random House decided not to run her book, and muchasness after she finally got it published. I mean, freakin’ Muhammed, people!
I thought the book was fair. I mean, Muhammed was a man, right? I don’t think he ever claimed to be more than a man, with human failings, who just happened to receive the word of Allah. I don’t know, I’m not Muslim (neither is Jones, btw. She just wants to promote greater understanding and junk, and I am FOR it!), and that might be why I didn’t get my knickers in a knot. I mean, probs if the leading man was Hey-zoos, I’d be feeling a bit touchy. But it wasn’t, and I didn’t!
So hows about you? Have you read this? Are you Muslim? Have you ever read a book where someone who (in your opinion) sheds holy-water-tears was treated as flesh-people? What did you think?
Spill beans, folks.
Also, seven caterpillars.
The Literate Housewife Review
A’isha is a 6 year old girl who, after her parents betrothed her to Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was required to remain in her family home until she had her first menstrual period. For an adventurous girl such as herself, she is tortured by the limitations placed on her simply because she was betrothed. She dreamed of escaping to freedom with the Bedouins with Safwan, her childhood friend during the entire length of her purdah. When she witnesses a woman from her clan dragged away by a man who would disgrace her as well, A’isha can barely contain herself from taking up a sword and defending her neighbor herself. She may have been young and she may have been a girl, but she had the heart of a warrior. It was this spirit which caught the eye of Muhammad and changed her destiny.
I first heard about this novel in August when it was reported that Random House was pulling its publication for fear of angering Muslims and perhaps inciting violence. This reminded me of the events surrounding Salmon Rushdie and The Satanic Verses. I found the decision disappointing. Self-censorship out of fear of what might happen is in some ways worse than forcible censorship because it isn’t always as visible. How many other books have never been published out of fear? Thankfully, it was finally published by Beaufort Books in the United States. When I snagged a copy of this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program, I was very curious to see just what it was that caused such a large publisher to back down. This is a novelization of a portion of Muhammad’s life through the eyes of his most notorious wife. Still, he was portrayed with warmth and empathy. His charisma and love of Allah are obvious, but so is his humanity. While I suppose any fictionalization of Muhammad may anger some Muslims, no offense was intended. Canceling this publication was much ado about nothing.
As most established religions have struggled against the treatment of women and their roles in society, A’isha’s character is especially interesting as (to Western eyes) Muslim women seemed to be the most imprisoned by their faith, family, and spouse. The only issue I had with this novel was the story line surrounding the way in which the rules surrounding facial covering became part of Muslim life. Making a vision seem convenient to Muhammad felt like an “easy out” that was not at all in line with his character. I do not know exactly how this came to be part of the Islam faith, but it seems to have sprang more from the existing culture than from Allah.
The Jewel of Medina is a fast paced and engrossing look at the beginnings of Islam through the eyes of a young girl who eventually becomes the third wife of the Prophet Muhammad. At the beginning I was reminded of The 19th Wife because of the common themes of plural marriage and being married to a prophet. The 19th Wife and The Jewel of Medina are both ambitious novels attempting to provide insight on the origins of world religions through the stories of the women involved. Interesting that both novels would be published this year. For me, Jones’ novel worked where Ebershoff’s did not. From the moment that A’isha is married to the much older Muhammad, I could not put the book down. This novel’s insights into living among sister-wives were more compelling and, as there is only one voice telling the story, the reader is always fully aware of the opinions coloring the story. While we can’t truly understand today without knowledge of the past, by leaving the modern out of The Jewel of Medina Sherry Jones brought early Arabic culture and the roots of Islam to life without much of the cynicism of today.
I cannot recommend this novel enough. It is a wonderful way to learn about the origins of Islam through the eyes of a complex and strong young girl and then woman. A’isha does not conform to my ideas of a typical Muslim woman anymore than she did during her day and age. She had to fight for her place in Muhammad’s harim and for the place of women in her society. Being so much younger than her husband, A’isha’s story does not end upon Muhammad’s death and I am eagerly waiting for the sequel. The Jewel of Medina, like all of the historical fiction I’ve enjoyed, has peaked my interest in Islam, Muhammad and his wives. I absolutely enjoyed the adventure and I’m sure you will, too.
Asma, writing on the GoodReads website, gives “The Jewel of Medina” four stars:
I finally finished a book! Yippee! So, yes, as Muslims have criticized, this book depicts the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). BUT, the author isn’t Muslim so she isn’t restricted by this guideline. While some aspects are weak and would give much fodder to Muslims to be offended over, OVERALL, the book is a work of a fiction, so we shouldn’t let these details get to us. Of course, Ms. Jones had to “imagine” a lot of details that were not ever recorded (especially about the Prophet’s wives’ inner sanctum), and she did have to add some lush, fictional, non-historically based flourishes. But, come on, is this really that big a deal? The author acknowledges in a closing note that she did fictionalize and use literary devices.
Beyond that, there are several good aspects to this book. It vividly illustrates the savagery of the Quraysh, the Meccan tribe that constantly tried to kill Muhammad. It will help you to understand why Muhammad was a warrior and had to fight.
I think she also portrays the Prophet’s generosity to his wives, his progressiveness on women, fairly well. Are there things in there that might offend a Muslim? Sure! Do they take away from the positive image one gains of Islam from the book? Not at all!
Considering the truly offensive stuff out there on Muslims and Muhammad, this novel is not a big deal and is actually pretty useful in these times of general ignorance about Islam.
Especially recommended to fans of alternate histories like “Wicked” and “The Mists of Avalon.”
A’isha in a New Light
By Sangeeta Mehta
Updated December 2008
As the newspaper articles and blogs explain, it was Islamic studies professor Denise Spellberg’s comments about Sherry Jones’ novel The Jewel of Medina that led to a decision by Random House to abruptly cancel the project. Among other comments, Spellberg characterized the book as “soft core pornography.” Two questions come to mind: one, is this claim valid, and two, does it matter?
The Jewel of Medina opens with the word “scandal.” The protagonist, A’isha, is fourteen and describes what the crowd sees upon her return to Medina: “my wrapper fallen to my shoulders, unheeded. Loose hair lashing my face. The wife of God’s Prophet entwined around another man.” This man is Safwan, whom A’isha has wanted to marry since childhood. As she approaches home, someone cries out, “Al-zaniya” (“adulteress”); others chant “A’isha – fahisha!” (“fahisha” meaning whore).
The novel then goes back in time, beginning with A’isha’s story from the time she is six and talk of her future husband begins, and ending with the death of her husband Muhammed when she is nineteen and he is in his sixties. A curious and precocious six-year-old, A’isha, along with Safwan and another friend, decide one day to spy on a bridegroom having sex; they notice his “broad, naked back as he lifted his body off the bed then slammed it down again and again.” They stare “at his behind, as big as my goat’s-bladder ball and covered with hair, as it clenched and relaxed with each thrust.” A’isha inadvertently admits her wrongdoing and is punished: she is placed in purdah, unable to step outside her parents’ home until her wedding day.
Three years later, when the Great Day arrives and A’isha tries to cover her “budding breasts,” her (half-) sister Asma tells her she can no longer hide them. “‘Starting tonight, you’ll have to share them with your husband.’ She winked at me. ‘Just hope he doesn’t nibble too hard.’” Since A’isha has not yet begun menstruating, the marriage is not consummated immediately and A’isha continues to live at her parents’ home where Muhammed visits her, affectionately calling her “Little Red.”
Nor is the marriage consummated even after A’isha goes to live with Muhammed and his wife Sawdah. For years to follow, the consummation, which Asma describes as “hands like scorpions scuttling across your skin… and then—the sting of his tail between your legs!” is the primary goal that consumes A’isha’s mind. She adorns her hands with henna; she tries an aphrodisiac; she learns “a dance to make a man wild.” When she is chosen to accompany Muhammed on an expedition, she attempts to seduce him once again: “I pressed my body against my husband’s… I opened my mouth to invite his tongue to dance with mine.” She tells him, “After your victory, I’ll show you more.”
But Muhammed continues to see her as a child. A’isha’s resentment of her sister-wives grows, keenly aware of the beauty and power of each new wife Muhammed brings home. For instance, Umm Habiba, whom Muhammed considers marrying until, as A’isha discovers, she turns out to be a spy, is described as having “high cheeks like figs, eyelashes as long as a lover’s kiss, lips as full and dark as forbidden wine, skin like coffee, and a bosom like the twin hills of Mecca.” It is only after A’isha is deemed innocent for having been caught with Safwan, fives years into her marriage, that “desire burned like a fire in Muhammed’s loins” for A’isha. She eventually gets pregnant but suffers a miscarriage.
A’isha’s focus on consummating her marriage is not the only topic covered by The Jewel of Medina. The novel also includes scenes in which men gaze at or attempt to touch women, telling them they’d “pay in gold for a feel of those glorious breasts.” It describes “the mood in al’Lah’s holy mosque” upon the arrival of Muhammed’s wife Zaynab as “lewd and leering, filled with bawdy jokes and winking speculations. See how the Prophet lusts for his bride.” The novel is also replete with platitudes about the meaning of love. When A’isha doesn’t understand Zaynab’s need to make Muhammed happy, Zaynab tells her, “It’s called love, A’isha. Perhaps someday you’ll try it.” A’isha eventually realizes that “love was more than a feeling. Love was something you did for another person.” Earlier in the novel, A’isha seems to show another sign of maturity when she helps Umm al-Masakin with her daily work of helping to feed and care for the poor; A’isha finds “an inner peace I never thought possible” and later comforts Mother of the Poor on her deathbed.
Yet soon after her grief subsides, A’isha continues to speak her mind and compete with her sister-wives. Later in the novel, A’isha is triumphant in that she achieves her lifelong goal of becoming a warrior; she even encourages other woman to learn to protect themselves and their children with their swords—except that, as Jones admits in the author question and answer section of the novel, she has never read anything about the real A’isha wielding a sword. A’isha also achieves her objective of becoming the hatun, first wife of the harim—but this, too, as Jones admits, is a fabrication of historical events, an idea “which I picked up from reading about Turkish harems of later times.” The idea of purdah is also not consistent with Islamic teachings.
If The Jewel of Medina is “extensively researched” as the jacket flap claims, this research does not appear to be widely incorporated into the story. A’isha’s character is shown to possess some intriguing qualities: the ability to help Muhammed strategize in war, entrepreneurial pluck. But given the intense focus on her desires and that of others, she hardly comes across as admirable. According to the dominant Islamic scholarship, A’isha is best known for being Muhammed’s favorite wife, in whose company he received the most revelations; and while the novel ultimately depicts her as such, A’isha’s historically revered charachteristics are not salient. On the other hand, Muhammed’s character is portrayed as being positive: he is shown to choose his wives for protection against enemies rather than for his own needs; he is also described as gentle and compassionate, particularly toward A’isha. But no other character, except perhaps Mother of the Poor, comes across as sympathetic or layered. The greater themes in the novel—sex, jealousy, destiny—are the stuff of romance novels. Do these themes, coupled with chapter titles like “Troublemaker,” “Ridiculous Rumors,” and “Come Away with Me,” make The Jewel of Medina “soft porn”? Hardly. But they do remind the reader that this novel is just that, a fictional account.
In her author note, Jones asks her readers to join her on a journey to “another time and place, to a harsh, exotic world of saffron and sword fights…” She does just this, but her portrayals of the most esteemed figures of Islam are more exotic than nuanced, more entertaining than informative, more trite than thought-provoking, less historical and more fictional than readers would—or should—expect. Was Jones’s motivation to write this novel to “honor” A’isha and other women, given that her descriptions of them are more sexualized than anything else? Does she “have huge respect and regard for the Muslim faith,” considering that her presentation of this faith is so narrow in scope? Did she fictionalize a sacred history to help bring it renewed attention, or was this mission superseded by the aim of writing a novel, no matter the subject?
Jones certainly has every right to defend her intentions; and she has the right, as anyone does, to enjoy her freedom of speech: to interpret historical or any figures—regardless of religion—in any manner she chooses. And she cannot be faulted for claiming that her original publisher’s decision to pull her book—especially so far into the production process—was an act of cowardice. She is justified in praising Beaufort Books’ decision to undertake the publication of this work, especially in the light of such daunting circumstances as protests and a firebombing at the office of Gibson Square, the book’s UK publisher.
The bigger issue to consider is how the novel has been pitched and perceived by publishers, readers and critics alike. To view The Jewel of Medina as anything other than a romantic fiction based loosely on the life of A’isha, wife of Prophet Muhammed, is to completely undermine the humanistic significance of the novel’s revered figures.
Sangeeta Mehta has worked as a book editor at Simon & Schuster and Little, Brown. She is currently a freelance editor living in New York City.
Controversial The Jewel of Medina: Jones should be thanked, not reviled
(Reprinted with the author’s permission, this review appeared Oct. 27, 2008 in Frankfurt Allegemaine Zeitung, Germany’s most literary newspaper. The Jewel of Medina was published Nov. 3 in Germany by Pendo Verlag.)
By Stefan Weidner
When Sherry Jones’ controversial novel about Aisha, the prophet Mohammeds’ most well-known wife, hits German bookstores courtesy of Pendo on Monday, there is some curiosity as to the reactions. Will there be threats by radical Muslims like in the UK, where there was a firebomb attack on the house of the British publisher? In the US, Random House-division Ballantine had cancelled the contract with the author out of fear for the reaction of radical Muslims, purportedly after consulting with experts. This brought on a heated controversy, and understandably so: Did Random House turn itself into a trustee for the censorship desires of fanatical Islamists?
Once you read the book, and if you know the sources Sherry Jones references, the case seems completely bizarre. They are the standard works on the prophet’s life, written by Orientalists and Muslims, and among them is the voluminous compilation of Ibn Kathir (died 1373), one of the classical medieval sources on the legends of Aisha, which have partly been translated into English. The novel The Jewel of Medina begins with the most prominent of these legends, the so-called necklace affair, in which Aisha was accused of adultery after having left the caravan on a campaign and being returned only on the following day by a man from the rear guard. The episode seems to have stirred up so much excitement that according to tradition Allah sent down Quran verses 11 to 26 from the sura “The Light”, in which slanderers of respectable women are reprimanded. Sherry Jones reimagines the episode about the savior as a reunion with a childhood friend, but she too, lets Aisha emerge from it untouched. To speak of “softcore pornography”, as some sensationalist reports on the book have, is wildly inaccurate, the more so as the other chapters deal mostly with the jealousy and power struggles among Mohammed’s wives.
If there is a reproach to be made to the author, it would be that the book leans all too closely, in the dialogue sometimes even verbatim, on the historic Islamic sources. Were these any more well known in the West, accusations of plagiarism might have ensued. The complete plot, the dramatic climax, even the narrative perspective are provided in the Islamic Tradition – there too, it is Aisha who tells her story. This increasingly turns into a literary problem for the book. The characters attain no independent existence apart from that which is found in the sources. This cannot meet the expectations we have developed for a modern work of literature.
The close dependence on the sources produces a strange effect, which in turn makes the excitement about the book seem even more curious. The author treads so lightly in her treatment of Mohammed that you ask yourself now and again whether she might be a Muslima. For this is what a novel by one of the Islamic feminists who by donning the veil and invoking strong women like Aisha to claim their warranted Islamic rights with renewed vehemency, might look like in the near future. This notwithstanding the fact that the fifty-year-old Prophet’s marriage to the seven-year-old daughter of one of his closest companions became a focal point of anti-islamic propaganda – with Ayaan Hirsi Ali calling Mohammed “a perverse man” and the right-wing Austrian politician Susanne Winter dubbing him a “child molester”.
However, the book delivers no material for possible anti-islamic effects. Mohammed appears as a kind nobleman: He deliberately does not touch Aisha, the child, even when she begins to think of herself as a woman and is devoured by her jealousy over the prophet’s exclusive attention to his other wives. It is Mohammed’s reservation that drives the story – it is his restraint that ushers Aisha back into the arms of her childhood friend. Just as in the Islamic tradition, Aisha is no saint; Mohammed, conversely, appears as just that, although even the sources mention his weakness for the female sex.
So why the controversy, you might ask, if the book doesn’t offer anything even to a devout believer that is not already layed out in the Islamic tradition? The Jewel of Medina is no provocation for Islam, but more so for the producers of a western image of Islam at the universities and in the media. It is the scandal of an Islamic science that has itself become fundamentalist and tolerates no gods beside itself. One has to savor this story: Asked for a “blurb”, one of the promotional one-sentence exclamations of enthusiasm on the book cover, Denise A. Spellberg, a historian at the department of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Austin, Texas, reacts with an outcry of horror. The book, she claims, uses islamophobic clichés and could be understood as a provocation by Muslims. But, how did Spellberg arrive at this judgment?
Denise A. Spellberg is the author of a survey from 1994 entitled “Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past. The Legacy of Aisha”. This is an astute deconstruction of the Aisha-legends, using the culture-critical tools developed by the Gender Studies. At a closer look, this is a much greater provocation than Sherry Jones’ novel. However, in judging the novel, Spellberg has turned her own research results into a religion again: According to her, a portrayal of Aisha on the grounds of the legends, which Spellberg had already deconstructed, is unobjective, bad literature, indeed: morally reprehensible. In a letter to the editor of the “Wall Street Journal” on August 9th she demands that “a literature seeking to further civilization should correctly portray history.”
Aside from the fact that the quality of a historical novel cannot be measured by factual accuracy alone, not even Spellberg can know the “right” story in regards to Mohammed and Aisha. If Sherry Jones resorts to a few anachronisms, so be it. What is interesting about the accusations however, is that they amount to a historiographic and aesthetic “truth-fundamentalism” of western provenance, which uses the religious sensitivity of Muslims as ammunition to weigh down its own position. It is a small wonder that some agitators have jumped at this incentive. In the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy, it was the western assumption of Muslim sensitivities which aroused them in the first place – above all in a case where other than with the Mohammed-caricatures or the Regensburg speech of the pope contained not the merest antiislamic disrespect.
For this reason, The Jewel of Medina is to be recommended, not as a book of scandal or an unusual suspenseful read, but as an entertaining introduction to the world of the Mohammed traditions – to a downright Mohammed epic, as we might be allowed to say. This material, its multifaceted and often contradictory illustration in the Islamic sources is one of the few great narratives of humanity that has yet to be appreciated in the West. Its appropriation, particularly by non-Muslims, is not only desirable from a literary perspective, it is also necessary to prevent the sealing of the material by Islamic fundamentalists. To have taken a first step in the direction of this appropriation, Sherry Jones deserves gratitude from all sides.
Stefan Weidner is editor-in-chief of “Art and Thought, the Journal for Dialogue with the Muslim World, published by the Goerthe Institute.”
The Jewel of Medina
by Nadia’s Sakinah
I just finished this book….and wish, on some level I had read it sooner. There are some progressives who doubt Aisha’s existence at all, and whether one does or does not, it’s a fascinating read. Yes it’s fictional, but it takes a heroine of Islam and makes her personal. It reminds people that both prophet and woman were human, people. With emotions like anger, jealousy, fear, love, kindness. That patience must be learned, that life changes us, and that somewhere in there we have the strength to do the unexpected.
by R. DeMarino on www.rateitall.com:
The Jewel of Medina is a beautiful story portraying the life, struggles and love of Aisha, the second and youngest wife of Muhammed. I found it enjoyable to read (I had a hard time putting it down!) as well as allowing a glimpse into early Islam. Sherry Jones treats the love story between Muhammed and Aisha tenderly: even though Aisha is a child when they marry, you feel that Muhammed loved her dearly and treated her with the utmost of respect. As she grows up her love for Muhammed matures and her desire to be a strong and courageous helpmeet to him emerges. The insight into being a “sister-wife” was facinating and I liked how Sherry Jones depicted the day to day toil – including the jealousy, rivalry, support and love between them. Years ago I read The Story Bible, by Pearl S. Buck, and it made Biblical times so vivid to me! I feel The Jewel of Medina opens up an understanding of early Islam in the same, beautiful way!
by Muslim Fundamentalist on www.rateitall.com:
Most of the muslim reviewers understandably have no comprehension whatsoever of the ways that non-muslim Americans think, or of the value of this book in providing them with an actual ~ as contrasted with the usual utterly falsified ~ history of the establishment of Islam in Arabia during the Medina period. That the fictionalization of the characters into modern American stereotypes is offensive does not change the result that American readers will be able to identify with the factual experiences of the period and assimilate for the first time some semblance of understanding of the birth of the faith that is their true heritage in Abraham. Such hostile and angry reviews are a good illustration of why muslims who are not Americans who have emerged from the American jahiliyyah should not be trying to “explain Islam” to Americans, a task best left to indigenous American muslims. The book is fiction that makes history available to Americans who would otherwise not be remotely interested. However offensive or disappointing the mischaracterization of ‘A’isha, ‘Umar, ‘Ali, and others might be to muslims, any debunking of the falsification of Islam that permeates America’s information media is a good thing, and Jones does this in a way that can reach American readers.
From Mandy’s Many Reads
I have to say that this was one of the most well researched books I have ever read. I also think that it took a great deal of courage to portray Mohammed (PBH) as she did. He is portrayed as a real man, full of faults, sexuality and everything else that goes with it. I felt that the last chapters were the most well written of all. There will be a sequel and I am looking forward to it.