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Jul 20, 2012

The Queen's Vow by C.W. Gortner

The Queen's Vow
Queen Isabella portrayed as a woman, as opposed to inquisitor
The Queen's Vow by C.W. Gortner
Ballantine June 2012
Hardcover 382 pages
Review copy from the publisher, thank you!
Burton Book Review Rating: Three stars

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.

Gortner enjoys writing of female monarchs who may have been vilified or misunderstood, and his newest novel is no different. Queen Isabella is most remembered for her role in the Spanish Inquisition and for funding Cristobal Colon's voyage. Was she a money hungry, blood thirsty monarch, with ethnic cleansing views similar to Hitler? That would be open to interpretation, and Gortner uses his research to try and portray Isabella in a more positive light. The story takes us through four parts, which were all discussed during the HF-Connection Read-along so I feel like I may be repeating myself here.

Using a first person perspective the author attempts to humanize Isabella as she deals with both political and marital conflict. I felt that with the many names coming and going, Carillo, Villena, Chacon, it may have been easier to get a full-figured view of the time period if we were able to see it through someone else's eyes and feel more of a sense of the political upheaval as well. Instead, using first person view of Isabella we are limited to her actions, thoughts and fears, which sometimes made me feel like I was trying peer through the haze to gather what was really happening elsewhere in the opposing factions/realms.

However, the author was not writing a historical novel regarding the period of Isabella, he was writing a novel on the character of Isabella. He does a great job of offering a glimpse of what could have been going through her head at various times, and we witness Isabella's transformation from young adult to wife and ruler. My favorite parts were the beginning, where Isabella is developing her relationships with her brother Alfonso, and half-brother Enrique. Those relationships helped humanize Isabella in my eyes, as I could see Isabella loved Alfonso very much and was willing to wait for Enrique's reign to be over before she reached for the throne of Castile. Another relationship (but ended up being a bit anti-climactic) was the fate of Juana la Beltraneja, the issue of Enrique's wife who was considered illegitimate. The political turmoil between the family and their advisers was well portrayed and I was eager to read how it would play out.

An underlying theme is Fernando and Isabella's marriage, going through the motions of the begetting of heirs for their realm in hopes of solidifying future political alliances. The other theme is the aspect of religion and how Isabella's beliefs helped shape her life and therefore how she governed. However, Gortner shows that Isabella did not make the important decisions on her own, as she had several people close to her that she listened to. He attempts to show Isabella as very reluctant to be the Inquisitor, and suggests that perhaps it is Fernando who had more religious zeal. The aspect of religion and the ultimate belief that all things are done for God and in His name is another important topic to consider when learning of Isabella's actions. The horrors inflicted on her people can be seen as a casualty of war, as she was on a mission to save her soul as well as her people. And to be fair, Isabella was one woman, and a product of her times. Her decisions were not her own.

This is a satisfying read for those who are interested in seeing a characterization of Isabella that possibly offers clues to why she made the epic decisions that she did, especially in regards to the persecution of her people. I am a reader who has to like a main character in order to fully enjoy a book, and I am predisposed to disliking Isabella. I wanted to be able to love this passionate Isabella, but I still wasn't able to in the end. There were many battles and struggles going on around Isabella which became a major thrust of the novel, and this helps portray the image of Isabella as a Warrior Queen, even though it was Fernando who was doing most of the battle organizing. The politics of the era are another major theme to the novel, and I found the Spanish maneuverings and battles for control of cities slightly confusing as there was a lot of this carried out throughout the novel.

Isabella exhibited tenacity, passion for her causes, and love for her family and Gortner does a thorough job of portraying these characteristics throughout the novel. My favorite scenes were those that focused around her children, and how she interacted with her children. I wish there were more towards the end of the book that focused on the marriage, but that too was overshadowed with the political upheaval and the conquests. I also loved Isabella's maid, Beatriz, who came in and out of the story.

One of the children that Tudor fans should recognize would be her daughter Catalina/Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII of England. Another daughter is Juana de Loca/Juana the Mad, who was a subject of Gortner's novel The Last Queen, which I enjoyed and recommend. I recently conducted an interview with the author regarding his research on Isabella and writing this book, which can be found here.

Along the same theme, I have to recommend Mitchell James Kaplan's novel By Fire, By Water, which was a  favorite of mine. It features Luis de Santangel, a character who was also mentioned in The Queen's Vow as he becomes entrenched on both sides of the Spanish Inquisition. For those who have read The Queen's Vow and would like to comment on many of the topics related to the book, feel free to comment on any of the discussion posts of the read along.