Book review: The Queen’s Vow by C.W.Gortner

Isabella of Castile, wife of Ferdinand of Aragon, warrior queen, architect of a united Spain, educational reformer, the visionary who sent Columbus to discover a New World... and a religious fanatic who unleashed the deadly Inquisition.

Wednesday, 9th January 2013, 9:00 am

So who was the real Isabella? Was she, as many still claim, a near-saint who brought peace to a fractured Spain after centuries of discord? Or was she a merciless Catholic zealot whose horrific excesses led to the persecution and execution of thousands?

US author C.W.Gortner, himself half-Spanish by birth, takes up the known threads of the turbulent early life of this complex and compelling 15th century queen and weaves a gripping novel about the forging of a nation, and a determined woman who overcame all the odds to rule in a man’s world.

The Queen’s Vow is his third foray into historical fiction and another captivating reimagining of one of Europe’s most notorious, controversial – and maybe misunderstood – queens.

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Using an authentic 15th century framework, Gortner allows Isabella’s extraordinary life story to unfold in all its dangerous reality, creating a powerful and unforgettable portrait of a tenacious young woman who overcame prejudice and treachery to achieve her destiny.

Young Isabella’s father, King Juan II of Castile, died when she was only three and she is barely a teenager when she and her brother Alfonso are taken from their mother’s home to live under the watchful eye of their half-brother, King Enrique, and his sultry, conniving queen Juana.

It is at Enrique’s court that she first meets her cousin, the brash, young Prince Ferdinand of Aragon, who vows that one day he will make her his wife and queen, and by so doing will bind together their kingdoms and help to restore peace.

But he also warns her that she must never let her emotions show. ‘You must learn to dissemble if you are to survive,’ he tells her.

And only a few years later, 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 of divided loyalties until, at the age of seventeen, she suddenly finds herself heiress of Castile.

Plunged into a deadly conflict to secure her crown, she is determined to wed Ferdinand, the one man she loves yet who is forbidden to her. And when they defy King Enrique and marry, Isabella and Ferdinand unite their two realms under ‘one crown, one country, one faith.’

But they face an impoverished Spain beset by enemies and under pressure from the Church to present a strong, united Catholic front. When the Moors of the southern domain of Granada finally declare war, a violent, treacherous battle against an ancient adversary erupts, one that will test all of Isabella’s resolve and courage...

Gortner’s sweeping, sumptuous novel takes his readers from the glorious palaces of Segovia to the battlefields of Granada and the intrigue-laden gardens of Seville as well as creating the very human story of a woman pitted against the might and machinations of Spain’s most powerful men.

The Queen’s Vow might take a few liberties with the facts but this is historical fiction written with the heart as well as the head, and allows us to view the remarkable Isabella as very much a product of, and exception to, her times.

(Hodder, paperback, £7.99)