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4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
The Queen's Vow
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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.
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on 21 June 2012
In "The Queen's Vow," author C.W. Gortner fleshes out the dramatic timeline of Castilian monarch Isabella, who consolidated the Spanish cantons under one crown and then opened that nation up to the great unknown beyond its peninsular horizons.

"The Queen's Vow," is told in the first person, Isabella's person. The character fashioned here is of an even temperament, goosed hither and thither by Catholicism, to which she owes her place on the Castilian throne.

The story joins the young infanta's life in her teens. She is not the first in line of royal succession. That's an honor that falls to Isabella's younger brother, Alfonso. Meantime, the Kingdom of Castile is in decline, ruled by her decadent and indecisive half-sibling, Enrique.

Athough this story is one foretold, there's no point in spoiling it for those who don't know the deeper history, which we can assume are legion.

Suffice it to say, all's not well in the kingdom and through untimely death, murder, and palace intrigue, Isabella ends up atop the heap, together with her husband, Fernando, who is a prince out of neighboring Aragon.

The novel tracks her personal development as well as the couple's progress, the in-house debates on dealing with marauding Portuguese, shifty Moorish infidels, nettlesome grandees, and their grand plans for the fledgling kingdom, to which their marriage has annexed Aragon.

Gortner barely tips his hat to locality when it comes to the prose here. There's no effort at a language play that captures Spanish speech patterns, deepens the native ambience, or gives greater relief to time and place. Isabella talks and thinks like your college English professor, or better.

Of course, some kind of concocted literary voice generates a reader's task of getting used to, or getting over, what is being proposed.

This way, done straight-up, we can get on with things and Gortner can attribute the most lucid of thoughts and reasons behind Isabella's actions, without having to shoehorn them into an idiomatic straight-jacket.

History can hamstring an author. One of the liveliest characters at the outset is the infanta's lady-at-court, Beatriz de Bobadilla. Unfortunately, in real life, Beatriz got married and left Isabella's side for considerable periods.

In a confection, she'd be there by the Queen's side, through thick and thin, developing as a person along with the story, which would have benefited. But that's not what happened and Gortner must tow the historian's line where Beatriz and others are concerned.

After Isabella and her husband, the strongest characters are those who alternately opposed or supported the young couple's rise to power. Gortner's crafting of the lamentable Enrique, the shifty archbishop Carrillo, the evil courtier Villena, and the ascetic inquisitionist Torquemada are his most forceful depictions.

The author appeared to take special pleasure in staging a first meeting between a certain "Genovese navigator," with a plan to sail off the end of the earth, and the queen. It's a scene that demonstrates how even cold, hard, battle-tempered rulers can be seduced by one's confidence, carriage, and ability to flatter.

Gortner composed an "Author's Afterward" in which he analyzes the queen's good (ending corruption in Castile, hiring Columbus, opening universities to women) with her bad (ordering the conversion or expulsion of all Jews, a generally martial approach to governance) and attempts to justify the politics of a woman who lived, you know, six centuries ago.

No need.

His text handles, beautifully, the contradictions the queen wrestled with, the weight of being a woman in a very masculine world, the persecution of those who supported and financed her triumphs, and her blind acceptance of Spanish Catholicism's dictates.

She is a woman who talks often about her clothes, ("my water broke, splashing a torrent over my embroidered red leather slippers"), and wrestles with the infidelities of her warrior husband.

She is human here and, one suspects, the queen herself would be pleased.
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on 4 January 2013

The way to my heart with historical fiction is to create an atmospheric, evocative opening that urges you to continue reading. A battle, a murder or a cataclysmic event may well provide a strong opening but rarely does a story maintain the early momentum. I find that a more subtle beginning gives you a clearer picture, not only of the character and their predicament, but of the writer's expertise.

I am constantly amazed by writers who can narrate a tale in first person, but whose gender is the opposite of the character who is telling the story To know the intricacies of another sex, the way they think and act, the way they dress and prepare themselves for court is one thing, but to convey it to the reader with seamless ease is another.

Christopher Gortner is a master story-teller, weaving superbly written fiction around an extensively researched historical backdrop. You can actually hear Isabella's voice resonate through the centuries and, dare I say it, believe that Gortner's fictional creation is an accurate depiction of Spain's most famous queen. and . I feel this book is one that will become another runaway success, and deservedly so. I thoroughly enjoyed it and award "The Queen's Vow" 4 Crosses !
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on 5 January 2013
Fans of historical fiction, get ready to jump up and down, shouting with glee, because Gortner has given us a fascinating account of one of history's strongest women.

In a world where women are largely marginalised and married off to advantage, while the politics are all left to the menfolk, Isabella bucked the trend by choosing her own husband and deciding to rule her country in her own right.

Isabella of Castile is quite possibly one of the most controversial female figures in history, ordering the conversion or exile of Muslims and Jews in Spain, and causing widespread destruction throughout her Reconquista, but she and her husband, Ferdinand II of Aragon, are also credited with creating stability and the unification of Spain, and Gortner's novel portrays a very real and sympathetic character who faces not only the difficulties of ruling fairly, but also of doing so as a woman in what was still very much a man's world.

Gortner has woven an exquisite tale, fraught with peril, where a woman who dares to go up against men (and beats them at their own game), is beset on all sides by traitors and untrustworthy advisors who would take control of her country for themselves. There is real edge-of-the-seat stuff here, and even if you are already familiar with this period of history and the major players in it, readers will be biting their nails in excited anticipation.

If you're looking for a dramatic tale of politics, expertly interwoven with one of romance, then this is the novel you have been waiting for. The writing flows so beautifully you could almost believe you're seeing it first hand and will be almost completely immersed in a world of deception, deceit, danger, love, passion, power and politics.
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on 10 January 2013
Isabella, as a royal princess of the Castille royal family, had only ever known the luxury and safety of her father's court. Brought up with great wealth and privilege her world is turned upside when Juan II dies. As her half brother, Enrique seizes the throne, Isabella, her brother Alfonso and their mother are whisked away to safety by a rival faction.

Sent to live in a rural backwater for safety, the family struggle to make ends meet and deal with the increasingly fragile mental health of their mother. As the children become pawns in the power politics of the Castille court, and with Civil war breaking out, Alfonso becomes the figurehead for opposition to Enrique's rule and Isabella, stuck at court must endure the hostility of her brother and his queen. Isabella must use all of her skills and intelligence to know who to trust and who to fear.

With the Civil War becoming increasingly bitter, Isabella turns to the power of the church to help her and learns that to survive and prosper she must be in control of her own destiny and make the hard decisions on her own.

When events conspire to place the crown of Castille on her head and her husband Ferdinand inherits the throne of Aragaon it seems that God really is smiling them. They then embark on a campaign to secure her throne from rebellious barons and to reunite Spain under their rule, this means taking the war to the Muslims of Southern Spain and finish the reconquista. The church also attracts their attention but the church has a high price for the help they received in grabbing power and Isabella is forced to unleash the Inquisition onto the suspecting people of Spain. As they increase their power and prestige in Europe a meeting with a charismatic sailor will lead to the discover of a new world and an Empire unrivaled in history.

I have to admit to being slightly apprehensive when I agreed to review this book. My usual reading is heavy on warfare and warriors with plenty of blood and guts chucked in so to be asked to read a book on a Spanish queen and her struggle for power was a slight departure from normal! This book was a joy to read, it was such a refreshing change to read history from a different point of view.

Isabella is, willful, headstrong and proud but she is never the less a warm and likable character who I felt a lot of affection for. As she struggles to survive you really get a sense of her anger and at times hopelessness as she has to deal with a man's world and a set of rules and traditions designed for men by men. Her relationship with Ferdinand is also well written, they draw strength from each other and drive one another to fulfill their ambitions for Spain. I also loved her frustration and loneliness as Ferdinand went to war and fought her wars for her and the desperation for news of his successes and survival.

This really was a great book and such a surprise for me, it was easily one of my books of the year.
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on 1 March 2013
Having read Mr. Gortner's novel 'The Last Queen, which features some of the same characters and is told from the point of view of Queen Isabel's daughter Juana, I picked up this book with some trepidation. Whilst I enjoyed the pace and writing style of the previous book, I was irritated by the numerous inaccuracies and changes to the circumstances and behaviour of the historical persons depicted.

However, this book was a very pleasant surprise. Apart from one major change, which the author makes clear he made in order to introduce a major character at an earlier stage in the narrative, the book is generally true to historical fact. It also retains the positive qualities of the previous work by bringing the world of early Renaissance Spain convincingly to life.

Mr. Gortner vividly depicts the difficulties which the young Princess Isabel endured - her sheltered childhood in a remote castle with an increasingly ill mother, her shock when plunged into the middle of her brother's debauched court and her successful evasion of a series of unappealing suitors. Her love for her husband Fernando and their strong and mutually supportive relationship is very well portrayed, although the author tones down some of the latter's behaviour in order to heighten the romance.

One of the most striking aspects of the book is how Mr. Gortner handles the decisions the Queen made which are the most shocking to modern readers - the introduction of the state-controlled Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews. Instead of a gung-ho fanatic intent from the outset on persecuting and expelling all non-Catholics, we are shown a devout but rigid woman who grapples with a very difficult set of circumstances before embarking on a tragic course of action. This seem to me to accord with the known facts, as Isabel hesitated for several years after the Pope granted permission prior to implementing the Castilian Inquisition.

The book has some flaws - the second half feels somewhat rushed, particularly when dealing with the long war to reconquer Granada, and the ending is rather abrupt. A longer volume would have been welcome and would have enabled the events of Isabel's reign to be treated in more depth.

Overall, I would recommend 'The Queen's Vow' as an excellent read that gives a good insight into a period and place which may be unfamiliar to British readers. It would be good to have a sequel in which post-1492 events are seen through Isabel's eyes rather than her daughter's - I was amused to note that much of the first chapter of 'The Last Queen' concerning the fall of Granada is here dismissed by the Queen as one of Juana's flights of fancy!
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on 4 February 2013
Before reading The Queen's Vow, all Isabella was to me, was the queen who, together with her husband, enabled Columbus to discover the Americas. I wasn't aware she was the one to instate the Spanish Inquisition or to unite Spain. So in that regard, the book was an education in and of itself. Of course, The Queen's Vow also sits in the middle of one of my historical fiction sweet spots: it's a narrative featuring the lives of royalty. Add to that the wonderful voice Gortner gives Isabella and his sense of pacing and romance and I couldn't help but love this book.

Told from Isabella's perspective in a first person narration, we're privy to her innermost thoughts, doubts, and insecurities. The narrative opens on the night of King Juan II of Castile, Isabella's father's death. It's the moment she says changed everything. Daughter to an unpopular second wife, Isabella and her younger brother Alfonso go from cosseted and spoiled infanta and infante to living in a dilapidated castle with a small to non-existent allowance to live on. Beside the financial troubles, there is also the gradually worsening mental decline of their mother, who seems to be suffering from clinical depression interspersed with almost schizophrenic episodes. This places a heavy burden on the young infanta Isabella, as she is the only one who can reach her mother when she goes into one of her spells and she's called upon to talk her mother down more and more frequently. Reading about Juana's decline was heart-breaking, both as it seems so unfair to Isabella to be put in that position and because one wonders to which degree Juana's condition was treatable, maybe even curable, instead of the out-and-out insanity it was viewed as. However, this isolated and difficult youth form Isabella's character and Gortner portrays her as a complex woman, one torn between her empathetic and inquisitive nature and her duties to God and country.

Gortner cleverly makes Isabella's match with Fernando a love match from the start, which was rare and almost unheard of for the age. In reality, the marriage probably was one of political alliance and convenience, but over time could have become a true love match and certainly they ruled well together. But again, in this novel, even if arranged, once they meet, they fall in love and passionately at that. I loved how Fernando becomes both Isabella's knight in shining armour, who she can depend on to come to her aid if she needs him, and also her light at the end of the tunnel, her chance at escape from her horrid situation at the court of her half-brother Enrique IV if only she's strong enough to arrange it. Despite these romantic visions, Isabella never sits back and waits to be rescued, she rescues herself employing the aid of Fernando and others, but hers is the strength behind the plans. She doesn't lose this strength once she's married either; it is a union of equals and she won't let anyone, not even the love of her life, make decisions for her. Gortner shows us a strong marriage, one that has some huge fights and even a period of estrangement, but also deep-felt passion and affection, resulting in five children, who were very much loved by both their parents.

While Gortner spends a lot of time setting up the circumstances which lead to the Spanish Inquisition and Isabella's reluctance to pass the edict instating it and we follow her until just after she authorizes the expulsion of Castile's Jews unless they convert, he skirts showing the actual horror and excesses of the Spanish Inquisition. Beyond Isabella's receiving of some of Torquemada's reports and her obvious upset at his methods and findings, there isn't much detail about the bloodiness of the entire operation. Whether this is because the situation only escalated to that extent after the edict of expulsion was passed, I cannot say, I'm too unfamiliar with the facts and timeline of the Spanish Inquisition, but it does allow Isabella to remain a sympathetic character, who is forced by circumstance and a true devotion to her faith to make some awful decisions. In his interesting afterword, Gortner explains how he came to his interpretation of the facts and he indicates where he deviated from historic facts to facilitate narrative flow and points out the one completely fictional character in the novel. I found it interesting to read where and why he'd chosen to alter the facts a little, as it also was a peek in the kitchen of the way a story is built.

The Queen's Vow is the story of a remarkable woman and a queen who was formative for Spain's - the world's even - history and one who up until now has been largely gone ignored in fiction, film, and TV. If you compare the amount of representations of her to those of Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria, for example, it is almost negligible. With his novel Gortner puts her in the footlights and shows the world her fascinating story, without excuses for her mistakes, but not letting the horrible facts of her reign overshadow her accomplishments or her humanity. The Queen's Vow is a captivating book, which has made C.W. Gortner an author whose work I'll definitely keep an eye out for in the future.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 January 2013
Isabella of Castile is one of the most enigmatic female figures of medieval history. Although known as one half of the relationship that united Spain (with husband Ferdinand of Aragon) and for despatching Christopher Columbus off to new worlds, in her own right she is remembered for her strength and resilience. Isabella is also, though, cloaked in the blackness of the Inquisition. Her own confessor, Torquemada, was its first Grand Inquisitor. Together they strove to unite the people of Spain by ridding the divided nation of its religious enemies, most notably the conversos - the converted Jews. Isabella, then, is a controversial figure. Sovereign and patron, a Spanish Gloriana, she was also a cruel zealot. What a perfect subject for a novel.

C.W. Gortner has achieved something remarkable with The Queen's Vow. Focusing on the early years of Isabella's life, including her first years as Queen, Gortner invites us to reassess this girl and young woman who became, against all the odds, Queen of Castille in her own right. This was no mean achievement, not least because of the warring family that surrounded her, waiting for her to falter, Gortner takes us through the events through the eyes of its chief witness, Isabella herself.

It's impossible to dislike Isabella. Intent on winning - and earning - what is her due, she endures her treatment at the hands of the king, her half-brother Enrique, and his vicious wife. While her own full brother Alfonso becomes a pawn of the warring factions, Isabella is effectively a prisoner due to her sex and potential importance. As she moves around the castles of hot, arid Spain, receiving reports of battles won and lost, Gortner presents a most vivid portrait of this large kingdom, full of so many different races and religions. Quite apart from the dust and hot sun, this novel is ablaze with colour. It is an extremely luxuriant read, beautifully written, to be read leisurely, Isabella's character savoured as events take place both within and outside her control.

Gortner also presents the other side of Isabella, the side that falls in love with Ferdinand, prince of the neighbouring, equally troubled kingdom of Aragon. Their relationship, in private and in the staterooms, comprises a large part of The Queen's Vow. The mix of young love and pride is poignantly depicted. Again, it's difficult not to like Isabella very much indeed, even with the growing religious influences on her which become more dominant as the novel goes on.

Before I read The Queen's Vow, much of my historical fiction reading had been centred upon the military world of Roman or medieval soldiers. This novel, one of the finest novels I have read in a long time, has changed my approach. Supported by Joanna Hickson's wonderful The Agincourt Bride which likewise brings a turbulent period of history to life through a female figure, I have re-discovered the obvious fact that there is a huge amount to be gained and enjoyed from this other perspective of history. Gortner, a male writer, deserves much praise for creating such a believable and realistic female character. Not only that, he also manages to rewrite Isabella. I long to see what he will do with her story next - I'm hoping Gortner returns to her (for an answer to that, see below).

In an earlier novel, The Last Queen, C.W. Gortner wrote about Isabella's daughter Juana, known to history as the Mad Queen of Spain. I've snapped that up. I'm grateful for the review copy.
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on 14 October 2012
Really enjoyed this book, what a fantastic women she was. Mr Gortner really captured her spirit, I could not put the book down. Highly recommend it to everyone. Looking forward to his next novel.
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on 11 July 2014
Having watched Isabel of Castille on Sky in Spanish with sub titles it drew me to find a book about her life. The detail in this book is vivid, giving the reader a ringside view of the Spanish court, although i found the characters easier to picture and slot into place because of the tv series. Gortners style is impeccable and leaves you feeling part of this awesome episode in Spanish history, and i lived the breathtaking moments of love and betrayal that he brought to life with his gift for recreating history through the written word. Even if you are not enamored of Spanish history this book is worth reading, and to be enjoyed!
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