Aug 19, 2011

Review: Reign of Madness by Lynn Cullen


Reign of Madness by Lynn Cullen
Hardcover, 448 pages
Putnam Adult, August 4, 2011
ISBN-13: 9780399157097
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
Burton Book Review Rating:

From the author of The Creation of Eve comes a tale of love and madness, royal intrigue and marital betrayal, set during the Golden Age of Spain.
Juana of Castile, third child of the Spanish monarchs Isabel and Fernando, grows up with no hope of inheriting her parents' crowns, but as a princess knows her duty: to further her family's ambitions through marriage. Yet stories of courtly love, and of her parents' own legendary romance, surround her. When she weds the Duke of Burgundy, a young man so beautiful that he is known as Philippe the Handsome, she dares to hope that she might have both love and crowns. He is caring, charming, and attracted to her-seemingly a perfect husband.
But what begins like a fairy tale ends quite differently.
When Queen Isabel dies, the crowns of Spain unexpectedly pass down to Juana, leaving her husband and her father hungering for the throne. Rumors fly that the young Queen has gone mad, driven insane by possessiveness. Who is to be believed? The King, beloved by his subjects? Or the Queen, unseen and unknown by her people?
One of the greatest cautionary tales in Spanish history comes to life as Lynn Cullen explores the controversial reign of Juana of Castile-also known as Juana the Mad. Sweeping, page-turning, and wholly entertaining, Reign of Madness is historical fiction at its richly satisfying best.

Many historical fiction fans have been introduced to Juana of Castile by reading The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner (Ballantine, 2009) and now there is another novel of this often misunderstood queen. Sister to Catherine of Aragon and daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, Juana came from a famous royal family and some would assume "good stock." Yet, she is know as Juana the Mad. The traits of insanity have been linked to her, her brother, and Isabella's mother, but how much of this is true? We may never really know, but we'll have fun trying to find out!

Lynn Cullen delves into Juana's life with this piece of fiction that is testament to the consuming power of greed of those who surround Juana. Christopher Colon (aka Columbus) was one of them, her husband was another and even Juana's parents were. The titles that landed at Juana's doorstep were unwanted and unexpected, and they eventually made her a prisoner in her own lands.

The author offers Juana's story of most of her life, and embellishes a little here and there to make it different than that of C.W. Gortner's recent novel. The two are similar in that they are both told in first person, and as such both are sympathetic towards Juana. The players around her change a little, which created a different contexts between the books, therefore I was not having too strong of a sense of deja vu. I enjoyed Lynn Cullen's portrayal of Juana, and of the events that saw her imprisoned for reasons beyond her control. Juana's husband Philippe was the one you would love to hate, and I would've enjoyed a little bit more story into what life was like after Philippe died. Her father Fernando seemed to be the villain at the end but it seemed to end a bit abruptly.

Poor Juana was the phrase going through my head for much of this read, and I wish there were something triumphant and hopeful that we could have gotten out of the read. Yet, more to the point, Juana lived her later life ruling as queen by name only, and perhaps there really was nothing to be hopeful for. One thing that troubles me has nothing to do with the book, but the fact that Phillippe was supposedly so handsome he was known as Philip the Handsome. I just don't see it.

If you are interested in reading more of Ferdinand and Isabella, Christopher Colon, or Juana of Castile, this quick reading novel will not disappoint, although how much is true or not we would never know. As fiction, this novel was fast-paced and intrigued me enough to want to know more about Juana and her family. I was especially tickled to see Margaret of York, Dowager Duchess, featured as the evil grandmother of Philip and yet another power hungry player. Reign of Madness was a myriad of page-turning worry and suspense for Juana as this reader wished for Juana to fly out of her coop once and for all, and into the arms of the one who truly loved her...

Read an excerpt here.