on June 18, 2012
C. W. Gortner's latest politically charged, passionate novel centers on the life of Queen Isabella of Castile, an interesting figure whose forbidden marriage to Fernando of Aragon galvanized Spain under a single banner. Gortner makes painstaking efforts here to remain true to history, painting Isabella as strong, passionate, devoted and sympathetic but infinitely flawed and naïve. Under her rule, Spain settles into an era of unparalleled prosperity, but her obsessions with the Catholic faith lead to the Holy Wars of the 15th century and the Spanish Inquisition, after which Spain falls.
The story begins in 1454 with Isabella a small child in the town of Madrigal de las Altas Torres, where she and her brother are called "infantes" --- members of the royal family who are not slated as heirs. Isabella is guileless, brought up by servants but living as a common vassal. She and Alfonso are haunted by the ravings of their delusional mother, who is wracked with guilt over sins committed to secure the throne for her offspring.
Isabella's story takes on a rapid pace after King Enrique summons her and her brother to court, out of curiosity, and Isabella knows they will not be allowed to return. She is a beautiful, dignified youth who has grown in fortitude and is determined to remain true to her God and king. King Enrique is apathetic, lonely and dejected, without ambition or dignity. He seems overly absorbed in the machinations of his crooked advisors and nobles, and the many lascivious attendants who have "corrupted him" scheme to do the same to the infantes. Acerbic Queen Juana exerts supreme control over the profane court, creating a picture not unlike that of the Borgias.
Supremely intelligent but vastly inexperienced, Isabella benefits from the more sophisticated perspectives and wits of her 12-year-old second cousin, Fernando, who visits the Castilian court early on and helps her recognize the state of the nation: in peril, with Castilian citizens starving and exposed to crime and poverty. It seems convenient at first that Fernando is instantly taken with her. The two have been betrothed since infancy. But Isabella finds herself passionately in love with him, and the scheming queen and king eventually determine to cancel their betrothal and marry her off instead into a royal household where she will cause no trouble and pose no threat.
It is Isabella's own fortitude and defense of her right to choose that leads her to commit treason and claim the crown for herself. She and Fernando pursue a covert marriage that forces Isabella to flee Enrique, who threatens her with imprisonment and sends his troops after her. But Isabella is successful in defining her future and claiming the crowns of Aragon and, eventually, Castile. She waylays the claims of Enrique's bastard daughter, Joanna, who pursues a civil war while Isabella's brother fails to survive to adulthood.
Isabella's flight is followed by continued struggles for most of her life, including marital unrest, difficult pregnancies, plotting advisors, and continued wars. Eventually she does become a startlingly strong figure --- a warrior queen in her own right --- though her relentless pursuit of self-righteous positioning for the purpose of promoting the Holy Wars seems regrettable and disdainful by today's standards. She and Fernando face another terrible ethical dilemma in attempting to fend off continued attempts by Chief Inquisitor Torquemada in his efforts to formally institute the Spanish Inquisition. As history records it, however, they succumb quite easily to his shocking, perverse, twisted thinking. This leads to their infamous reputation as callous, cruel tyrants.
At the end of the book, Gortner makes the case that the Inquisition may actually have been inevitable during this historical period due to the greater politics and social climate of the time. But he also openly acknowledges the continuing bigotry and distorted thinking of both Isabella and Fernando, who are guilty of many crimes during their reign and have been written as inherently flawed characters as history records them.
THE QUEEN'S VOW is a fictional story but painstakingly true to history as it has been written. Readers will find in Isabella a complicated and flawed figure who deserves a fractured reputation as both famous and infamous. This is a truthful, unusual, well-researched, intriguing historical that should appeal highly to those who appreciate truth in history and unembellished excitement.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith