The Queen’s Vow: A Novel Of Isabella Of Castile by C.W. Gortner
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.
Gortner, who is of French-Spanish descent and was raised in Spain for most of his childhood, has been fascinated by Isabella and her family for years. Already having written novels about Isabella’s famous daughters, Gortner now turns the spotlight on Isabella herself. Driven by his desire to reconcile the dual images of a revered patroness and reviled genocidal leader, Gortner seeks to promote a more complex understanding of the young queen who both united Spain and expelled the last of the Moors.
The Queen’s Vow reads like a chaste ode to a staunch matriarch. Isabella is portrayed as a young country princess raised far from the treachery surrounding life at the royal court. Her life and her success revolve around a complete and utter devotion to Catholicism. Gortner readily admits that he manipulates historical details to make the novel more interesting and in the process creates a woman who is dogmatic, judgmental, blinded by love and by duty. In spite of such a rich subject matter the novel’s pace is slow and plodding. The romance between Isabella and her husband, Fernando, would benefit from added complexity. I can see how hard Gortner tries to make this a grand romance but this version lacks real depth or passion. In fact, the interactions between Fernando and Isabella are some of the weaker points in the book.
Lest I give the impression that everything is negative – which is not my intent – I found the dialog between Isabella and her half brother, King Enrique, and the descriptions of her time at his court to be rich and exciting. These scenes are grand images of courtly debauchery told from the perspective of a young pious girl with such a combination of childish wonder and moral disdain, Isabella is never more alive than in these moments. In describing the juxtaposition of Enrique’s world weary, self indulgent, malaise with Isabella’s piously calculated certitude, Gortner most effectively delivers his vision of Spain’s most controversial queen – that of a woman who feels personally responsible for the salvation of her country and her subjects via any means necessary. Whether mortgaging the royal jewels to fund battles or acquiescing to the demands of a crazed Catholic mystic, Gortner’s Isabella inevitably believes she is acting out God’s will and saving the souls of her nation from sin & perdition.
Of course, it is convenient when the affairs of the Church coincide with affairs of state. That the affairs of the Church would result in the deaths of 1,000s of Jews who had lived peaceably in Spain for centuries and even acted as counselors and bankers to Isabella and the royal family for years, is deemed of little consequence. As Gortner mentions in a foot note, Isabella should not be judged to harshly because after all, the Jews had been expulsed from several other countries by this time; and, Isabella did not initiate the Inquisition, she simply revived it. With these foot notes, Gortner condemns the story from ever having any real depth or conscience.