Have You Read …? Historical novel tells a compelling tale
“The Last Queen” by C.W. Gortner
History is full of fascinating persons whose lives are often more dramatic than anything the imagination can conjure. This is one of the reasons historical fiction is so popular; when done right, the intertwining of imagination and fact creates a compelling story that haunts us long after we’ve finished the last page.
C.W. Gortner’s “The Last Queen, a Novel of Juana la Loca” is one of those stories. From the opening line: “Midnight has become my favorite hour,” you know you are in the hands of a master storyteller, one who has turned the tables on popular accounts to present an well-researched, compassionate view of one of history’s most enigmatic personages: Juana of Castile, daughter of Isabel the Catholic, and the last queen of Spanish blood to inherit the throne in her own right.
Known as the Mad Queen, Juana is relatively unknown outside her native Spain other than as the elder sister of Henry the Eighth’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. But in her lifetime, Juana took her world by storm, first through her scandalous and ultimately savage marriage to the Habsburg heir, Philip the Fair, and then through her own courageous struggle to claim her crown during a time of civil chaos and malevolent ambition. Gortner has elected to tell Juana’s story in her own words-a brave and wise choice. With candor, dry wit and an utter lack of self-pity, Juana recounts a childhood spent on crusade during her parents’ war against the Moors and the fall of Granada; her abiding love for the complex beauty of her realm; and her enforced betrothal to a man who is a stranger to her. Juana’s singular humanity highlights the ruthlessness of the 16th century, when rulers sacrificed everything for power. She is a spirited and decisive woman plunged into a labyrinth of deceit; and readers will be intrigued by Gortner’s deft handling of her mental state as well as by Juana’s own secret admissions.
Gortner gives us a sensory feel for period through descriptions of the clothing, food, transportation, and social mores of Juana’s era. Strong supporting characters like indomitable Queen Isabel, wily Ferdinand, and the handsome, depraved Philip come to life, as do the starkly different courts of Spain, Flanders, France and England. Yet none of it ever feels like a history lesson. Even readers like me, who know very little about this particular time, will find Gortner’s book easily accessible, for he weaves the facts with effortless grace into a narrative dominated above all else by Juana herself. Only as we thrill and fear for her as she fights for her freedom and her birthright do we remember all these incredible events are happening to a young woman in her twenties-one who’s never known life without the crushing responsibility of being a princess.
Filled with passion, intrigue and betrayal, this is superb historical fiction from a writer who cares deeply both for his subject and the intelligence of his readers. I highly recommend The Last Queen to anyone who loves a good story you just can’t put down.
– Linda Dolan is a frequent visitor to South Lake Tahoe and a freelance book reviewer for Neighbors Bookstore. You can visit C.W. Gortner at http://www.leonibus.com