Isabella, the Warrior Queen by Kirstin Downey

Isabella: The Warrior QueenPlease note that although I received an Advance Reader’s Copy (ARC) of this book from Doubleday through the Goodreads First Reads program (my thanks to you both!), this review was not influenced in any way and reflects my honest opinion.

Isabella looks a mite terrifying in this cover, no? Let’s just say even before opening this book, I thought she was pretty badass and it’s contents only confirmed my opinion.

I didn’t know that much about Queen Isabella prior to reading it, just the usual shipping Columbus to America and nobody expecting the Spanish Inquisition. But apparently Isabella did a lot more than that, because Kirsten Downey’s Isabella, the Warrior Queen is long. I mean, over 500 pages long and as intimidatingly dense as a snow drift is to a corgi. Thank God I read this over Columbus Day weekend, because I seriously needed the extra day to get inspired and get through it.

What Downey does so right is a comprehensive overview of not just Isabella’s life, but the history and culture of the times. The text goes off on tangents at times, about syphilis or the Borgias, but these seemingly random topics actually played a huge role in Isabella’s life. I appreciate biographies that are conscious of not only telling the story of a person, but showing the various factors that shaped them into the person they became. I also liked that Downey utilized numerous first-person accounts from diverse historical records to put together a well-rounded impression of Isabella and her times.

Isabella gets a bad rap in retrospect, and certainly some of that is deserved. However, she was very much a product of the period she lived in and yet her rule was very progressive and change-making in certain ways. For example, not only was she a strong female ruler, she was a woman monarch who led her kingdom to one the largest military victories in Christendom, the reconquest of Grenada. Initially in her reign, she was far more tolerant of Jews and Muslims, but even when she began to crack down on those minority groups, she was always an advocate of treating Native Americans well rather than brutally killing and enslaving them. She was also ahead of her time as a staunch supporter of women’s rights, especially to education, making sure that her daughters were as knowledgeable as her son and donating to universities funding for women’s scholarships.

Because this was an ARC, the thoroughness of the content clashed with the inconsistent writing quality. Numerous grammatical and sentence structural errors made me cringe every few pages. I seriously hope they did a thorough edit before going to print. Additionally, while I was glad to see they made room for maps at the beginning of the text, my copy lacked them, which made reading slightly confusing. What I didn’t see was a page held for a family tree, an addition that would be extremely helpful to readers since Isabella’s family repeated names frequently.

Despite those flaws, I loved how much I learned from the text, and how afterwards I immediately turned to the internet to try to learn more about Isabella or find more books about her. Which reminded me of the awesome Royal Diaries series that I adored as a kid, including a book titled Isabel: Jewel of Castilla that I now shamelessly want to reread. And apparently the books were turned into a TV movie series – how did I miss this?!? (Sidebar: there’s also a currently-running Spanish show about Isabella, which looked excellent but unfortunately I haven’t found a version dubbed/captioned in English.)

I would definitely recommend this book to any history buffs out there, because it presents a strong overview of this pivotal era in international political history, or to those who are interested in military or religious history.

3.5 Stars

Comment on the rating: I considered my rating to be a rating of the ARC. It’s entirely possible that the editors have since corrected some of the issues that bugged me and the finished product could be 4 Stars. But I felt it would be dishonest to give it that without seeing the published version.

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