i really like the way barry unsworth writes historical fiction. his research never overwhelms his story, and threads into the ideas he explores through the backdrop of another time: in this novel, the beauty of the mosaic art, the blend of multiple indistinguishable stones coming together in a particular shape to create beauty, is as the diverse populace of sicily in the twelfth century: some identifying as muslim, christian, others as greek, norman, german all contribute to the culture, all people, and all vie for ascendancy under the crown. the novel follows the royal purveyor, thurstan who has lost his chance at knighthood, and flounders as he attempts to find some kind of future, juggling loyalties and he narrates the story as his past to reveal the secret of the ruby.
i can't give the novel the four stars that i had originally hoped. eventually i found that the repeated and clunky foreshadowing got to me (please people, stop using multiple variations of "had i only spoken then, it might all have been different" -- i get it, you're telling the story in the future, and you want me to feel anxiety but you do this too much and all i want to do is punch the book in the face.) the pacing is a little off -- the book takes a while to unfold, and then there's a lovely mid-section, and then unsworth seems to feel an urgent need to wrap things up quickly -- the ending felt a little abrupt.
this isn't a perfect novel, but it's quite enjoyable, and i will be reading more unsworth.