Since reading Kirstin Downey’s fabulously comprehensive biography Isabella, The Warrior Queen, I have been intrigued by Isabella of Castile, but there is a serious dearth of books about her. So I eagerly pounced upon C.W. Gortner’s The Queen’s Vow, which fictionalizes Isabella’s life, beginning in her youth and concluding with her shipping Christopher Columbus to America.
Barely a teenager, Isabella watches her father take his last breaths before fleeing into the night with her mother and brother to escape the clutches of her half-brother Enrique, the new king. Raised in near-poverty and seclusion, she is suddenly thrust back into the debaucherous, materialistic court-life when the King and his conniving Queen Juana want to keep a closer eye on her as various opposing factions plot to use Isabella as a pawn against them. When her younger brother Alfonso suddenly dies of suspected poison and Enrique’s daughter is deemed illegitimate, Isabella becomes heiress to Castile and must learn how to become the queen her father and brothers never were. Determinedly, she sets out to marry her love Fernando, prince of Aragon, with whom she establishes a marriage of equals, rearing numerous children together while fighting the French and the Moors and resisting the demands of zealous clerics and the Catholic Church.
Gortner certainly presents a more salacious picture of Isabella’s life than Downey did, clearly dramatizing events to make for a better story. For instance, the lustful, drunken behavior of the court would offend most modern sensibilities, let alone that of the 1400s, and having read Isabella’s biography, I know she did not meet Fernando as a child and dance with him in the gardens, pledging themselves to each other. Still, she also mentions Enrique’s sexuality, Juana’s numerous infidelities, and Fernando’s mistresses, all scandalously truthful facts. So I’ll give her a pass on the more fanciful elements.
I think the first half of the book was far stronger than the latter half. Isabella as a child comes across as naive but intelligent, understandably so but with a sheltered upbringing, and we see what events shape her into the person she becomes remembered as. Her religion is her armor, girding her against the world. Her relationship with her maid and confidant Beatrice is particularly touching, all the more so because it’s clear she has few others to lean on, especially among her family.
However, Isabella’s development into that infamously controversial queen then muddles into a stream of patched together instances across decades once she becomes queen, from the births of her children through battles and politicking. While Gortner does reveal the pressures Isabella was under from inquisitor Torquemada and Fernando to begin the Inquisition, I thought the full inner turmoil and ramifications of her decisions were glossed over as she mostly just prays for clarity. Isabella’s other major claim to fame, her sponsorship of Columbus, is also chucked in at the end rather haphazardly, without any solid conclusion besides what the reader knows from history.
This book is a well-written fiction of Isabella’s life, humanizing the queen with all her complications and contradictions. I would recommend this to fans of historical fiction, especially those who enjoy Philippa Gregory. For those who prefer straight-up history, definitely check out Downey too and have fun comparing the two.