Guest Reviewer: Michelle Moran on C.W. Gortner's The Queen's Vow
Michelle Moran is the international bestselling author of Nefertiti, The Heretic Queen, Cleopatra's Daughter, and Madame Tussaud. Her fifth novel The Second Empress will be published in 2012. Michelle’s experiences at archaeological sites around the world inspired her to write historical fiction.
I love how C.W. Gortner chooses maligned women in history and re-examines them in his novels within the context of their era. In The Queen’s Vow, he has done it again, creating a mesmerizing and unforgettable portrait of Isabella of Castile. For all her fame, Isabella is often misunderstood. She’s either revered as a near-saint or despised as a religious intolerant. Of course, most of us know she sent Christopher Columbus to America, but few of us have been told the amazing story of her youth, when Spain was a broken kingdom and she just a forgotten princess, whom no one expected to rule.
It is the mid-1400s. In Europe, most countries are united under one ruler. But in Spain, ancient divisions between the kingdoms of Castile and Aragón, and violent feuds between nobles, have created anarchy. Isabella is the daughter of an exiled widow, and she and her younger brother Alfonso live far from court in the countryside. Their royal father is dead; their mother haunted by the past; and their half brother, Castile’s new king, barely reigns, dominated by his favorites and his conniving, beautiful queen.
Then Isabella and Alfonso are sent to court, where they soon become pawns in a vicious struggle for power. Accused of treason, Isabella is held a prisoner, while her brother leads a rebellion. But when tragedy strikes, Isabella suddenly is named heir to the throne, though no woman before her has successfully ruled for long. As she embarks on a perilous path toward the throne, she indulges a forbidden desire for Prince Fernando of Aragón— a desire that pits her against her half brother the king and his ruthless nobles, all of whom seek her downfall. Can she marry the man she loves and still remain a sovereign queen? And how will she win over all her sworn enemies and restore peace in Spain after centuries of intrigue and discord?
Gortner vividly recreates the turmoil of Isabella’s youth and the striking contrasts of the country she knew, where the last Moors cling to their faded realm in the south and different cultures merge in uneasy alliance. Isabella’s stormy rise to power and quest to become a worthy queen are stunningly described, but what makes Gortner’s Isabella so unique is that while she is brave and daring, she is also conflicted— a fallible woman exercising her power in a traditionally male-dominated world. In her, we can see ourselves. She is like us: passionate and hopeful, proud yet doubtful, compelled to fight for what she believes in. Though The Queen’s Vow doesn’t shy away from the terrible decisions she chooses to make, it reminds us that in the end, Isabella was human, a woman of conviction and strength in a time of upheaval, who forged her destiny despite every odd, to become Spain’s most beloved queen.