I am pleased to publish this review as one of the stops on C.W. Gortner’s Virtual Book Tour!
The Last Queen tells the story of middle child of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, Juana. She watched her parents take back the country of Spain from the Moors and return it to a united country. She also was witness to the Spanish Inquisition meant to unify the country under the Roman Catholic Church. She was never meant to rule, but as a series of deaths befell the children and grandson of Isabella and Ferdinand, Juana was left to take over as Queen of Castille upon the death of her mother. The one thing that Juana had in common with her mother, being married to a man whose wealth and title were dwarfed by her own, proved to be a battle of a lifetime for Juana.
I enjoyed the picture Gortner painted of the young Juana, loving to explore the world and willing to push the limits of propriety to do so. Despite her independence and drive, her somewhat sheltered existence made it possible for her to fall under the charms of her husband, Phillip the Handsome. He is painted as a good hearted man who gave in to his advisers who fed his lust for power. As Juana stood in his way, her heart got trampled over and over again. When her mother dies, Juana fights for what’s best for her homeland, desperately hoping that there are those who will fight with her.
It was no surprise when I read C.W. Gortner’s bio and learned that he is of Spanish decent. It could be sensed in his writing and the way that he wrote about Spain and his characters. When Juana wrote of her love of her country, she was speaking through the author. He treated the faults and mistakes of the leaders who shaped the future of Spain with respect and sympathy. They may have been sovereign leaders, but they were human. It is a blessing to have your history told to the ages by someone as who speaks with honesty driven by love.
There is only one aspect of this novel that tripped me up at times – the use of Spanish when the story was written in English. The terms of endearment did not bother me, but to read a sentence in Spanish and then have it translated into English again by the narrator brought me out of the story. I was able to catch the meaning of those Spanish sentences with me weak Spanish and the context of the paragraph. Even without any exposure to Spanish, I don’t believe the translation back into English was necessary.
On its own, this novel was intriguing, but after having read so much about Juana’s youngest sister, Catherine of Aragon, and Tudor England, I found this story absolutely fascinating. It was unfortunate how the lives of Isabella and Ferdinand’s children played out. With the possible exception of Marie, they all met tragic and heartbreaking fates: their eldest children died young, Juana lived out much of her adulthood in isolation to keep her from the thrown, and Catherine wasted her youth patiently awaiting her destiny to be the Queen of England only to spend her last years valiantly and perhaps stubbornly claiming to have never lost that crown. Whether it was simply bad luck or bad karma from the Inquisition, this family had a cosmic thumb pressed down upon them. Juana dealt with the storms of her life with grace, dignity and strength. Her life might have been tragic, but when told by someone as passionate about his subject and as skilled an author as Gortner, reading about her life was one of my most pleasing reading experiences this year.
If that’s not enough to entice you to read this novel, here’s more from the author:
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