No one believed I was destined for greatness.
So begins Isabella’s story, in this evocative, vividly imagined novel about one of history’s most famous and controversial queens—the warrior who united a fractured country, the champion of the faith whose reign gave rise to the Inquisition, and the visionary who sent Columbus to discover a New World. Acclaimed author C. W. Gortner envisages the turbulent early years of a woman whose mythic rise to power would go on to transform a monarchy, a nation, and the world.
Young Isabella is barely a teenager when she and her brother are taken from their mother’s home to live under the watchful eye of their half-brother, King Enrique, and his sultry, conniving queen. There, Isabella is thrust into danger when she becomes an unwitting pawn in a plot to dethrone Enrique. Suspected of treason and held captive, she treads a perilous path, torn between loyalties, until at age seventeen she suddenly finds herself heiress of Castile, the largest kingdom in Spain. Plunged into a deadly conflict to secure her crown, she is determined to wed the one man she loves yet who is forbidden to her—Fernando, prince of Aragon.
As they unite their two realms under “one crown, one country, one faith,” Isabella and Fernando face an impoverished Spain beset by enemies. With the future of her throne at stake, Isabella resists the zealous demands of the inquisitor Torquemada even as she is seduced by the dreams of an enigmatic navigator named Columbus. But when the Moors of the southern domain of Granada declare war, a violent, treacherous battle against an ancient adversary erupts, one that will test all of Isabella’s resolve, her courage, and her tenacious belief in her destiny.
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.
I'll tell you right off the bat that I did not know much about Isabella of Castille before reading The Queen's Vow, though she had been a minor character in one or two novels I'd read and had not been portrayed very favorably. I knew she was responsible for religious persecution and the discovery of the New World, and that she's a controversial historical figure who has her share of lovers and haters. What I'm trying to say is that I'm not qualified to judge if this is an accurate portrayal of her, and I do suspect that her relationship with Fernando has been romanticized a bit in this story . . . but I don't care! This was a fantastic read and one of the best historical fiction novels I've read this year!
I'm not going to recap the plot for fear of spoiling anything, in case, like me, much of this history is new to you. Every time a plot twist surprised me I had to force myself not to run to the internet to find out how it all turned out! From page one this book did not want to let go of me, and Isabella was a young woman I had to get to know. Facing trial after trial in every aspect of her life with grace, wisdom, and passion, she drew me in and I became so attached to her that I found myself living through her: sad when she was sad, happy when she was happy, angry when she was angry, and outraged when she was betrayed. She was a woman constantly on guard, steeling herself in childhood against her mother's mental illness and disregard, and as an adult from nearly every person she came in contact with. She had to fight for her right to the throne in a country full of corruption and discord, where advisers became accusers and allegiances could shift in a heartbeat, all the while struggling with the decisions she had to make and the self-doubt that assailed her. Her life was often in physical danger from multiple enemies from the time she was a child; there were many who did not want to see her on the throne of Castille, and once she was there, many who wanted to overthrow her. You may question how any woman could maintain sanity and self under such stressful conditions, and for Isabella the answer was Fernando.
What a love story! And what a partnership. I had no idea just how much these two people managed to accomplish for their country, overcoming seemingly impossible odds to do so. From bringing the Renaissance to Spain, to completely revamping their legal codes and stamping out corruption and rebellion across the country, fighting invasions by the Portuguese and reclaiming their lands from the Moors, forging global alliances . . . the list goes on and on. And through it all Fernando and Isabella remained true partners in leadership. It may be hard to reconcile the sage and progressive Isabella portrayed in this story with the Isabella who condoned the persecution of Jews and the reinstatement of the Inquisition, depicted in this story as a decision reluctantly made after a series of circumstances made no other alternative viable in her mind, and in the minds of her counselors. But that's part of what I love about historical fiction, particularly with a figure like Isabella: getting the chance to see all the facets of one's personality and seeing the significance of outside influences, cultural differences, and the simple truth of human nature that nothing is as simple as black and white.
I'm deducting half a star from my rating of The Queen's Vow, though it pains me to do so, because ten years of warfare flew by in such a whirlwind over the last fifty pages that I felt a bit of a disconnect from the characters, and after such an emotional, dramatic story the ending seemed rather anti-climactic to me. Don't get me wrong, it's a good ending, I'd just been expecting a little more "oomph" from it. But those considerations aside, this book is just beautifully written, eloquently poised, burning with emotion, bursting with gorgeous descriptions of fifteenth-century Spain, and plotted and paced so intensely that I simply could not put it down. With this novel C.W. Gortner has earned a place for himself on my "Authors Who Know How To Do Historical Fiction Right" list!
My Rating: 4.5 Stars out of 5
The Queen's Vow is on a blog tour!
C.W. Gortner will be here next week with a guest post and a special giveaway! In the meantime, check out the other tour stops for more reviews and interviews!