In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed westward from Spain into the unknown "Ocean Sea," seeking a route to the Indies. On the same day, his patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, banished all the Jews from Spain on pain of death. In the short story, "The Green Cross," a young Jewish sailor, Diego Mendoza, sails with Columbus on the Santa Maria and is falsely accused of theft.
The novel Voyage of Strangers begins with the Santa Maria anchored off the coast of Hispaniola and moves quickly to Columbus's triumphant return to Spain, where the reader meets Diego's sister Rachel. Left in a convent school posing as a Christian when the rest of the Mendozas fled Spain, Rachel is determined to accompany her brother on his next voyage, and she will not let Diego, her stern converso aunt, a scheming grandee with ties to the Inquisition, or Admiral Columbus himself stop her. After an eventful journey across Spain, Diego and Rachel embark on Columbus's second voyage. They come to love the isle of Hispaniola or Quisqueya and its gentle people, the Taino, and are horrified as the doom of the Taino and their culture creeps closer, thanks to the Spaniards' hunger for gold and conquest.
In the sequel, Journey of Strangers, Diego, Rachel, and their Taino friend Hutia return to Europe, sick at heart but helpless to prevent the genocide of the Taino. They arrive to find a continent torn by war and the Jews, including their family, whom they believed safe in Firenze, a prosperous city-state ruled by the Medici, scattered. They must overcome many dangers to make their way to Istanbul, where the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire has chosen to welcome the Jews. In the meantime, the reader meets Joanna, a Jewish girl whose family settled in Portugal, where the King welcomed Jews from Spain for a few months, then changed his mind. Joanna is one of two thousand Jewish children herded onto the docks in Lisbon, forcibly baptized, and sent as slaves to work the sugar plantations of São Tomé, a pestilential island off the coast of Africa known as the Isle of Crocodiles, a fate only a handful will survive.
"A Disturbance in the Harem" picks up Rachel's story twenty years later, when she and the Kizlar Agha, the Chief Eunuch of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent's harem, form an unlikely partnership to solve a mystery.