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A rich tapestry
on 7 January 2013
The Queen's Vow is one of the smoothest, most emotive historical novels I have read in some time. I have not read Gortner's earlier books, though one in particular has caught my eye from time to time as a 'will read'. This one held a particular appeal to me when I discovered that its subject was Isabella of Castile, and so I dived in.
I will state for the record that the book is not my usual fare. While I am a voracious reader of historical fiction, I tend towards the military, action-packed, blood-and-guts tales of Rome, the Civil War or Napoleonic campaigns. I rarely read tales of more court-based life or family sagas. The Queen's Vow is very much a saga of a family in the court circles of Castile and Aragon, seen from the perspective of the young woman who will become one of Spain's most famous historical figures. While there are murders and treachery, wars and sieges and violent unpleasant deaths, they are all seen from the perspective of the recipient of their report rather than seen first hand. This is not meant in any way as a condemnation, just a reporting of the style of the work - the tale, after all, is focused on the great Queen and her struggles in the court.
Where this story wins out for me is its style. The tale is evocative of the great dusty, dry world of medieval central Spain, draws the reader into the mindset of an innocent in such a twisted, dangerous world as the Castilian court, and delivers a flavour of the era so clear that the reader can almost taste and smell the world Isabella experiences.
There are elements in there that brought scenes and flashes of great movies to mind for me. The scenery and lands in the timeless 'El Cid', the loss of girlish innocence in a world of intrigues and plots seen in 'Elizabeth' (a plot with many similar elements), the twisted religious fervour of 'Name of the Rose'. Many others. But if you can picture some of those things it might help give you a flavour of how the Queen's Vow reads.
The tale follows the life of Isabella (most famously remembered in the company of her later husband Ferdinand) from her youth as an exiled royal scion, through all the twists and turns of a royal succession that should be hers, to the final seat of power and consolidation of her throne that comes with an almost unacceptable price. Isabella begins the tale as a quiet, almost demure and submissive girl, but through a series of dangers and difficult situations and over the years of betrayal and fear, her young, naïve, innocence is hardened like diamond into a powerful vision of her future and belief in herself. With her beloved Fernando (Ferdinand of Aragon) by her side she begins to forge a single realm from the fractured states of Spain and a catholic land from a mixed world of Christian, Jew and Moor.
During this era, so many astounding events that have affected the world as a whole took place, and they all have a place in this story: The Reconquista and the fall of Granada - the final expulsion of the Moors from Spain, the patronage of Christopher Columbus and his plan to find a new route to the Indies, the combining of the two great Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile to forge the future nation of Spain, the foundation and growing power of the Holy Inquisition under the dangerous priest Tomas de Torquemada, and the edicts that led to the expulsion of the Jews from the land. A time of momentous change that saw more upheaval in Spain than any other era, and created the Spain that we know today.
The Queen's Vow will transport you to that world and bring it to every sense, not just your eyes. You will hear, see, smell, taste and even feel the dry and dangerous world of Isabella, and perhaps even come to understand the hardships that turned the shy Infanta Isabella into the great Queen of history.
On a last word, as an English reader, I sometimes find it jarring when I read historical works by an American writer, as the idioms and common expressions - not to mention spellings - can make the English reader pause and have to make sure of the intended meaning of the sentence. I expect American readers of English writers have the same issue. One thing that really astounded me about Gortner's prose is that, despite the national differences in language, it read as easily and smoothly as a native English work and I noticed nothing that caught me off guard.
All in all, this is not a work to rush through, as much historical fiction is. You could read it fast, but you would probably not enjoy it as much. Most of the value of this work to me was its flavour and feel, and that is powerfully conveyed if you devote enough time to savouring the book.
I will, for sure, be reading the Last Queen, which, though written earlier, details the next phase of Spain's historical development.