This review is the first half of my stop on C.W. Gortner’s blog tour. Please check back this afternoon for a guest post by the author on the research he did for The Queen’s Vow. You can find an overview of all the stops on this tour on the author’s blog.
Isabella was the notorious warrior-queen who, along with her husband Ferdinand, transformed Spain forever. Popular belief has her as a religious fanatic persuaded into the horrific excesses of the Inquisition by her confessor, Torquemada; but C.W. Gortner paints a picture of her early life, showing us a headstrong, passionate girl who grew into the most powerful queen Spain ever knew and whose vision and imagination allowed Columbus to discover America.
Before reading The Queen’s Vow, all Isabella was to me, was the queen who, together with her husband, enabled Columbus to discover the Americas. I wasn’t aware she was the one to instate the Spanish Inquisition or to unite Spain. So in that regard, the book was an education in and of itself. Of course, The Queen’s Vow also sits in the middle of one of my historical fiction sweet spots: it’s a narrative featuring the lives of royalty. Add to that the wonderful voice Gortner gives Isabella and his sense of pacing and romance and I couldn’t help but love this book.
Told from Isabella’s perspective in a first person narration, we’re privy to her innermost thoughts, doubts, and insecurities. The narrative opens on the night of King Juan II of Castile, Isabella’s father’s death. It’s the moment she says changed everything. Daughter to an unpopular second wife, Isabella and her younger brother Alfonso go from cosseted and spoiled infanta and infante to living in a dilapidated castle with a small to non-existent allowance to live on. Beside the financial troubles, there is also the gradually worsening mental decline of their mother, who seems to be suffering from clinical depression interspersed with almost schizophrenic episodes. This places a heavy burden on the young infanta Isabella, as she is the only one who can reach her mother when she goes into one of her spells and she’s called upon to talk her mother down more and more frequently. Reading about Juana’s decline was heart-breaking, both as it seems so unfair to Isabella to be put in that position and because one wonders to which degree Juana’s condition was treatable, maybe even curable, instead of the out-and-out insanity it was viewed as. However, this isolated and difficult youth form Isabella’s character and Gortner portrays her as a complex woman, one torn between her empathetic and inquisitive nature and her duties to God and country.
Gortner cleverly makes Isabella’s match with Fernando a love match from the start, which was rare and almost unheard of for the age. In reality, the marriage probably was one of political alliance and convenience, but over time could have become a true love match and certainly they ruled well together. But again, in this novel, even if arranged, once they meet, they fall in love and passionately at that. I loved how Fernando becomes both Isabella’s knight in shining armour, who she can depend on to come to her aid if she needs him, and also her light at the end of the tunnel, her chance at escape from her horrid situation at the court of her half-brother Enrique IV if only she’s strong enough to arrange it. Despite these romantic visions, Isabella never sits back and waits to be rescued, she rescues herself employing the aid of Fernando and others, but hers is the strength behind the plans. She doesn’t lose this strength once she’s married either; it is a union of equals and she won’t let anyone, not even the love of her life, make decisions for her. Gortner shows us a strong marriage, one that has some huge fights and even a period of estrangement, but also deep-felt passion and affection, resulting in five children, who were very much loved by both their parents.
While Gortner spends a lot of time setting up the circumstances which lead to the Spanish Inquisition and Isabella’s reluctance to pass the edict instating it and we follow her until just after she authorizes the expulsion of Castile’s Jews unless they convert, he skirts showing the actual horror and excesses of the Spanish Inquisition. Beyond Isabella’s receiving of some of Torquemada’s reports and her obvious upset at his methods and findings, there isn’t much detail about the bloodiness of the entire operation. Whether this is because the situation only escalated to that extent after the edict of expulsion was passed, I cannot say, I’m too unfamiliar with the facts and timeline of the Spanish Inquisition, but it does allow Isabella to remain a sympathetic character, who is forced by circumstance and a true devotion to her faith to make some awful decisions. In his interesting afterword, Gortner explains how he came to his interpretation of the facts and he indicates where he deviated from historic facts to facilitate narrative flow and points out the one completely fictional character in the novel. I found it interesting to read where and why he’d chosen to alter the facts a little, as it also was a peek in the kitchen of the way a story is built.
The Queen’s Vow is the story of a remarkable woman and a queen who was formative for Spain’s – the world’s even – history and one who up until now has been largely gone ignored in fiction, film, and TV. If you compare the amount of representations of her to those of Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria, for example, it is almost negligible. With his novel Gortner puts her in the footlights and shows the world her fascinating story, without excuses for her mistakes, but not letting the horrible facts of her reign overshadow her accomplishments or her humanity. The Queen’s Vow is a captivating book, which has made C.W. Gortner an author whose work I’ll definitely keep an eye out for in the future.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.