Tuesday, July 29 is the official publication day for C.W. Gortner's new novel, The Last Queen. Having read an advance copy of the novel, I can claim without exaggeration that it is one of the best historical novels I have read. The Last Queen is the story of Juana of Castile, the last queen of Spanish blood to inherit the kingdom; known to history as "Juana la Loca"--Juana the Mad--for the unbridled love for her husband that supposedly robbed her of her senses after his death, her story is an amazing tale of determination and courage in the face of repeated betrayal.
Juana is the third daughter of Queen Isabella of Castile and King Fernando of Aragon, monarchs who have fought long and hard to unite their country and free it from Moorish occupation. Eager to forge alliances with the powers of Europe, they send Juana, who embodies the bold ferocity and indomitable pride of her beloved country, to Flanders to wed the archduke Philip, heir to the Hapsburg empire. The unexpected love and passion Juana shares with her young husband assuages her discomfort with the lavish luxury and loose morals of the Hapsburg court and distracts her from her homesickness.
Juana and Philip's idyllic existence comes to an abrupt end when her older siblings and their heirs die one after the other and Juana stands to inherit the Spanish throne upon her mother's passing. As she grieves the successive tragedies that strike her family, Juana finds herself fighting for the future of her country as well as the freedom of her person. Unsatisfied with his role as Juana's consort, Philip is determined to have himself named king and rule Spain in her stead; the Spanish nobles, who must approve the investiture of the monarch, side with him, eager to trade their loyalty for money and favors. The once-devoted spouses find themselves estranged, separated by Philip's brutal lust for power and Juana's determination to keep him from the throne. Using Juana's temper and flamboyant gestures against her, Philip declares her unstable. Steeling her heart against this man she loved so deeply, Juana does what is necessary to protect her realm, only to face a new betrayal by the one man she thought she could trust, a man who covets the throne of Castile even more than Philip did.
The Last Queen is a riveting tale, from first page to last. Writing in the first person under the guise of an imprisoned Juana penning her memoir, Gortner captures the passion, anguish, and wily intelligence of the queen. His voice, never faltering, brings her to life without seeming too modern in outlook or idiom. His secondary characters are well-developed; Queen Isabella, King Fernando and Philip are more than equal to the task of opposing the fiery Juana. The relationships between the characters are highly charged and constantly shifting; Juana reacts to what she sees (or what she wants to see), which isn't always the truth of the way things are. The nuances of the relationships and Juana's misreading of them contribute to the suspense regarding how it will all play out and keep the theme of "queen determined not to lose her throne" from becoming a static trope. Juana is never solely a victim; consciously or not, she has a hand in her fate as much as her betrayers do.
I applaud Gortner for his deft handling of the complicated politics of sixteenth-century Europe and of Spain in particular. Though I knew next to nothing about Spanish history before reading this novel, I found this to be no hindrance to my understanding of the story. The author weaves explanations of the unification of Castile and Aragon, the conflicting inheritance laws of the two realms, and the dependence of the Spanish monarch on the nobility into the narrative without resorting to information dumps or lectures thinly veiled as dialogue. The characters' actions clearly elucidate the rivalries and sensibilities of Spain, England, France and Flanders. I came away from the book with a better appreciation of the role of Spain on the European stage and a fuller understanding of how the Hapsburgs gained control of such a large portion of the continent. Yet the historical issues that inform the book never take the focus away from Juana and her plight. This book is a novel first, history lesson second--in other words, historical fiction at its best.
There are a few places where I wished certain relationships had been more deeply developed: for example, although we learn that Archbishop Besançon acts as a substitute for Philip's distant father, I never saw any true affection exhibited between him and the prince until the archbishop's death; I also wondered whether Juana, separated so many times for such long periods from her children, wouldn't have missed them more. But these quibbles are minor in light of the author's masterful exploration of the emotional intricacies of Juana's deteriorating marriage and her complicated relationship with her parents. Like Juana herself, the novel maintains a high level of emotional intensity; caught under its--her--spell, the reader turns page after page, ever wondering if Juana is just a bit as crazy as history has made her out to be.
The Last Queen is an engaging, entertaining, and exciting read that I recommend whole-heartedly to lovers of historical fiction. (Fans of Tudor fiction will find the interwoven story of Juana's younger sister Catalina, sent to England to marry the Tudor heir, an extra treat.) I thank C.W. for sending me an advanced reading copy and allowing me to contribute in a small way to the launch of his book. I'm sure The Last Queen will top many "Best Historical Novels" lists for 2008 and beyond.
Be sure to return tomorrow to read my interview with C.W. himself--after you run out and buy your own copy of The Last Queen, that is!