Shortly after I started reading historical fiction in early 2006, I came across a book about a mad queen locked up in a castle who was also the daughter of Queen Isabella of Spain (of Christopher Columbus fame which is all I knew about her). Really, she had a crazy daughter?– I have to read this! I was entranced by the passion in the first person narrative, and the sadness of the story. And I was totally dumbfounded when I found out the author, C.W. Gortner, was a man - how could a man possibly write from a woman’s point of view so effectively? When Gortner announced that his next book would be about Catherine de Medici, I figured I would see if The Last Queen was a fluke. It wasn’t – I thought The Confession of Catherine de Medici was excellent! So I was thrilled to learn that he would be turning his attention to Queen Isabella herself. I’ve read a few older novels about her (Plaidy’s trilogy, Norah Loft’s Crown of Aloes and Lawrence Shoonover’s The Queen’s Cross) but they were rather dated and just OK.
The Queen’s Vow is told in first person and covers Isabella’s life from her pre-teen years at her half-brother's court through 1492 - almost thirty years of intrigue, ambition, betrayal, and power. In a world dominated by men, Isabella held her own against them. She was respected and feared. She helped find a whole new world. She brought the Inquisition to her people. She lived an incredible life that should make for a compelling story, right? So why didn’t I feel the same magic?
I don’t have a good answer to that question. In much the same way that I was disappointed with Penman’s Lionheart, this one fell rather short of my expectations. Although I am not generally a fan of first person narratives, in certain circumstances it can work and this is one of them. Isabella can talk about the politics and diplomacy of her time because she was in the middle of it. She doesn’t need someone to tell her what happened, write her a letter or send a messenger about it. The one exception is during the section dealing with the conquest of the Moors and there, the first person narration doesn’t work quite as well. Also on the plus side, the novel appears to be well researched and some of the visual imagery of Spain’s countryside is just stunning. It definitely makes me want to go there someday!
The pacing of the novel seemed off – the first half covers a fairly short period of time and so kind of plods along, while the second covers a much greater span of time including the major events of Isabella’s reign which are hurried through. But I think what is missing the most here is the same passion from Isabella that I thought Gortner breathed into Juana and Catherine de Medici. Isabella tells her story pretty matter-of-factly. The only time I felt any real emotion from her comes when she discovers her husband’s infidelity.
The Queen’s Vow is still a good novel and I’m looking forward to reading Gortner’s next one about Lucrezia Borgia. I just hope the magic is back.
In case the FTC asks: Review copy provided by the publisher as part of the author’s blog tour.