The Queen’s Vow - A Novel of Isabella of Castile
AuthorC.W. Gortner (The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, The Last Queen)
Publisher: Ballantine Books (Random House)
Pub Date: June 12, 2012
What it’s about: The book covers Isabella’s life from the age of 3 when her father King Juan dies to 1492, when as we all know, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Isabella, her mother, and her younger brother Alfonso are forced to flee after her father’s death to a remote castle in Spain, to keep them safe from those who might seek to get rid of Alfonso. When Isabella is barely a teenager, she and her brother are taken from their mother’s home to live under the watchful eye of their half-brother, King Enrique, and his sultry, conniving queen Juana of Portugal. There, Isabella is thrust into danger when she becomes an unwitting pawn in a plot to dethrone Enrique. Suspected of treason and held captive, she has to walk a tight rope, torn between her loyalty to her half-brother, and the notion of divine right, and her loyalty to Spain. At the age of seventeen she suddenly finds herself heiress of Castile, the largest kingdom in Spain. Although her brother and his advisors are determined to marry her off to a foreign prince, Isabella is equally determined to marry Fernando, prince of Aragon.
Their two realms now united under “one crown, one country, one faith,” the royal couple face a Spain beset by enemies. But when the Moors of the southern domain of Granada declare war, a violent, treacherous battle against an ancient adversary erupts, one that will test all of Isabella’s resolve, her courage, and her tenacious belief in her destiny. From the glorious palaces of Segovia to the battlefields of Granada and the intrigue-laden gardens of Seville, The Queen’s Vow sweeps us into the tumultuous forging of a nation and the complex, fascinating heart of the woman who overcame all odds to become Isabella of Castile.
Why you should buy it: Because it rocks ya’ll! No seriously, this is an enthralling and captivating read about one of history’s most maligned Queens. Before I read this book, I knew about four things about Isabella of Castile. I knew that she was the mother of Catherine of Aragon & Juana of Castile, she and her husband Ferdinand (called Fernando in the novel) rid Spain of the Moors, she financed Christopher Columbus’s voyage to discover a new trade route to the Indies, and she not only revived the Inquisition but expelled the Jews from Spain who refused to convert to Christianity. As far as I was concerned, she was nothing more than a religious fanatic, who sanctioned the destruction of a native culture, but also persecuted a group just because they believed differently. Of course, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
One of Gortner’s gifts as a writer is that he allows the reader to get deep under Isabella’s skin, to understand what motivates and drives her, even if you don’t agree with her actions. His Isabella is proud, driven, passionate, stubborn and at times single-minded, all the traits of Taurus the bull, the sign she was born under. Isabella grows from a somewhat naïve princess into a strong, powerful Queen. Only in her early twenties when she assumes the crown of Castile, Isabella has to balance motherhood, her husband’s sensitivity to the fact that her kingdom is larger and more powerful than his, and learning not only who she can trust but also to trust her instincts. Gortner vividly describes the burden that Isabella is placed under, and he doesn’t hesitate to show that she was a flawed human being, that she makes mistakes that could be costly. By the end of the book, I found myself rooting for Isabella to not only succeed but to thrive, although there were times when I found myself yelling at the book, “Don’t trust Torquemada!”
Ah, Torquemada, the toad in the room. Although I found the character loathsome as I do most religious fanatics, I could understand why Isabella was both attracted and repelled by him. It’s easy to forget just how important and how paramount the Church was in the lives of not just the ordinary believers but also of the monarchy. Kings and Queens ruled by divine right, they truly believed that they were God’s representatives on earth. Some of the most affecting scenes in the book were the ones when Isabella prayed to God for guidance, to help her sort through the conflicting emotions that she had, particularly later in the book when both Torquemada and Ferdinand press her to expel the Jews who refuse to convert, and earlier in the book when they advise her to deal with the conversos who were Christian in name only. I would not have wanted to be in Isabella’s shoes, to have that kind of responsibility. I was also intrigued by Gortner’ s portrait of Christopher Columbus, a man so sure of himself and his mission. I would love to see someone write a historical novel about him.
I confess that I did skim through the battle scenes, although I’m glad that I didn’t when Isabella put on her breastplate and sword to ride out to meet Ferdinand and the troops. What a magnificent scene. I think what I enjoyed the most though were the little scenes, Isabella’s relationship with her lady-in-waiting Beatriz, her astute insights into the characters of her children and her sheer love for them, particularly Juana, who is absolutely adorable in this book. Although the book is Isabella’s journey, it is also a love story, how she and Fernando manage to come together as both husband and wife and also as monarchs. I was swept away by their passion for each other, and Isabella’s struggle to forgive him early on when she learns that he’s not perfect, but human.
I totally disagree by the way with the Publisher's Weekly review that the book is directionless,or that Isabella is never particularly interesting. I wonder if the reviewer read the same book I did. I certainly wasn't waiting for the pace to pick up. The book moves swiftly towards its conclusion, in fact, I wish the book had been longer so that Gortner would have been able to delve into the politics and Ferdinand and Isabella's marriage on an even deeper level. This was a story that definitely could have benefited from a longer word count.
I highly recommend this book, particularly to readers who are weary from a steady diet of the Tudors. Isabella is fascinating woman and I'm going to miss spending time with her.