By C.W. Gortner. Ballantine Books. 400 pages. $26
By Suzanne Wardle
What do you think of someone who thinks bullfights are cruel, but that it’s OK to draw and quarter your enemies to make an example of them? Someone who says she respects others’ religious beliefs, but declares those who don’t follow her religion should clear out of the country? (Even though some of those people recently lent her a lot of money?)
What do you think of Isabella of Castile?
The 15th-century Spanish queen is the subject of C.W. Gortner’s novel “The Queen’s Vow.” His view of her is clear: He treats her with respect as he takes her from a child with an uncertain future to a venerable monarch, unchallenged on her throne, and writes a good, solid book in the process.
It’s a novel of triumph as Isabella vanquishes her enemies one by one, be they the niece who claims Castile’s throne herself or the troublesome nobles who want to thwart her marriage. But Gortner’s pedestal for Isabella isn’t too high, and with each success, he shows Isabella’s path through doubt, fear and frustration to get there. Although he is sympathetic as she fights the Moors for land, he uses the campaign as a steppingstone to one of Isabella’s most controversial acts, the approval of the Spanish Inquisition. Gortner paints her decision as fraught but doesn’t try to excuse it.
Most of all, Gortner portrays Isabella consistently. She matures gradually and realistically, not in sudden spurts. The author cleverly lays the groundwork in Isabella’s youth for her actions and observations as an adult. Her exhilaration at first seeing the ocean means it makes sense when she gambles on Christopher Columbus. Her realization that she is undereducated justifies her making sure her own daughters are well-schooled. She recognizes in her eldest the mental instability she observed in her own mother. This well-constructed development makes Isabella a very human and appealing character.
“The Queen’s Vow” is Gortner’s third novel to center on a European queen (one of them, “The Last Queen,” is about Isabella’s daughter Joanna). It’s another strong story about a formidable woman who risked life and livelihood to buck society. Isabella’s words as she wanders about her brother’s library describe her own life: “Such books proved to me that we have courage inside us we do not recognize until we are put to the test.”