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Queen Isabella of Spain will always be regarded as a bit of an enigma. On the one hand, contemporary sources claim that she was wise, kind and gentle, hating any kind of cruelty, including the popular sport of bullfighting. Her rule brought about the unification of Spain and heralded a new era of peace for its people. On the other side of the coin, she and her husband Fernando sanctioned the infamous Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of all Jews from Spain. Her most vehement critics may also point out that her sponsorship of Columbus brought untold misery to the inhabitants of the Americas, although in her defence, there is no way that she could have predicted the eventual consequences of his pioneering voyage.
So how can these contrasting sides of her personality be reconciled? This was the task that C.W Gortner set for himself when writing The Queen's Vow, an account of Isabella's life, beginning with her early childhood and ending with Columbus setting sail for the New World. The story is a rich, sweeping epic, with an expressive, engaging narrative that completely immerses the reader.
Gortner's characterisation is wonderfully descriptive. I especially enjoyed the passages describing the greasy, world-weary king Enrique and his loathsome 'favourite', Villena. Equally fascinating was the depiction of Torquemada the Inquisitor as a gaunt, skeletal, shadowy figure, constantly lurking in the darkness.
The story sees Isabella develop from a shy teenager to a formidable warrior-queen. Gortner treads a fine line between writing sympathetically about the queen, whilst taking care not to justify her flawed reasoning and more extreme actions. It is clear that because of her devout faith, she believed that what she was doing was for the good of her country, although history would later judge her to the contrary.
The Queen's Vow is not just an historical epic; it is a human story, written in the first person perspective from a woman who initially felt overwhelmed by the tasks set before her, but rose to most challenges with dignity and wisdom. Her love for her husband was deep-seated and real, with the passage describing their first, 'stolen' dance in the garden one of my favourite passages in the book.
My only criticism was that the pace of the story was slow and plodding at times; fans of action and excitement may find themselves bored by the sedate tempo of the storyline.
Admire her or hate her, Isabella is sure to divide opinion, but this absorbing novel gives a fresh perspective on historical events by telling the story from an original and very personal point of view.