Synopsis: Young Isabella is barely a teenager when she and her brother are taken from their mother’s home to live under the watchful eye of their half-brother, King Enrique, and his sultry, conniving queen. There, Isabella is thrust into danger when she becomes an unwitting pawn in a plot to dethrone Enrique. Suspected of treason and held captive, she treads a perilous path, torn between loyalties, until at age seventeen she suddenly finds herself heiress of Castile, the largest kingdom in Spain. Plunged into a deadly conflict to secure her crown, she is determined to wed the one man she loves yet who is forbidden to her—Fernando, prince of Aragon.
As they unite their two realms under “one crown, one country, one faith,” Isabella and Fernando face an impoverished Spain beset by enemies. With the future of her throne at stake, Isabella resists the zealous demands of the inquisitor Torquemada even as she is seduced by the dreams of an enigmatic navigator named Columbus. But when the Moors of the southern domain of Granada declare war, a violent, treacherous battle against an ancient adversary erupts, one that will test all of Isabella’s resolve, her courage, and her tenacious belief in her destiny.
I will not lie; this is a hard review to write. If I have to assign a relationship status to this book, it is definitely “it’s complicated”. There are moments where I am absolutely gripped by the strong writing and am transported to 15th century Spain, and cheers as Isabel (I refuse to call her Isabella since everyone else in the book is referred by their Spanish names) outwits her opponents as well as rightfully earns her position as one half of the power couple. On the other hand, there are countless moments where I cannot understand the rationale of her actions and is outright bored, which really is a crime given how dramatic Isabel’s life is.
Let’s start off with the good:
Isabel’s reign is complex, and she is one busy monarch. She has wars to fight with the Moors, Jewish people to deal with in her mainly Catholic country, rebellious Spanish grandees that do not mind rendering her powerless in order to line their own offers to subdue, and is part of a marriage where her husband loves her but perhaps loves power even more. Gortner does not disappoint as he manages to weave all the plotlines in the book, allowing the reader to gain insight on the historical events that forms the first half of Isabel’s reign. The plot is riveting and I am always eager to know how Isabel emerges victorious against all odds. However, all this action occurs in the last third—or even last quarter—of the book.
In fact, everything during the last quarter is near perfection and is exactly the novel that I want to read about Isabel of Castile. She makes tough political decisions to make and introduces the infamous Inquisition due to her famed piety. Her complex relationships with her husband, her advisors and her enemies are beautifully illustrated. One of the most poignant moments in the book is when Isabel pawns a gift from Fernando (better known as Ferdinand, the other half of the power couple) in exchange for more funds from her converso (Jewish) financial advisors. The funds allow the fight lead by Fernado against the Moors to continue. It is great because it demonstrates several things: Isabel’s need for the converso Jew in her Court due to financial reasons, her determination to vanquish her enemies, and her faith in her husband when the Cortes refuse them more money. I have no complaints about the last quarter of the book and wish that Gortner has continued with Isabel’s reign.
Gortner introduces multiple antagonists that are not purely evil for evil’s sake—they all have shades of grey. There are so many supporting antagonists: Carrilo, Queen Juana, King Enrique, the Princess Juana (supposedly Isabel’s niece) just to name a few. Of course, there are also outright nasty villains, but they are almost so over-the-top nasty that I have fun it reading about them as they cause havoc and prevent Isabel from reaching her goals.
And now, the bad:
Remember how I mention that the last 35% of the book is near perfect? Well, one will have to get through the first 65%. And the thing is that multiple events have occurred, but for some reason they all fall flat. In fact, half the book devotes itself to Isabel’s journey in becoming the Queen of Castile, which itself is not a bad premise. Unfortunately, Isabel is the POV character for the entire book and during her struggle to become Castile’s monarch, she is locked away somewhere or not where the action takes place. This makes it dull reading despite the high stakes involved—Isabel is an Infanta of Spain that is effectively a hostage that somehow becomes an heiress which leads to her fighting a civil war with her niece. Based on Gortner’s writing, it is as if she never instigates any of this.
Also, remember all the supporting antagonists that have shades of grey? They are introduced, but are never quite explored or integrated properly in the story to make the overall experience richer. A missed opportunity in my opinion is Carrillo, the very flexible and secular Archbishop that (sort-of) single-handedly guide Isabel to becoming Queen. His advice is usually accurate, but one cannot help but think that Carrillo is out for himself; I always expect Carillo to betray Isabel the first opportunity that is available. It is a pity that this energetic man that helps the first 65% be more interesting is never fully explored and just exits abruptly.
As for all the other supporting characters, they are not fully developed. Gortner mainly assigns “roles” to various characters (the evil half-brother, the shrewish sister-in-law etc) and decides that he does not have to spend anymore time in making them three-dimensional. The only characters that are interesting to read about are Isabel and Carrillo. If nothing else, I want Fernando, Princess Juana, and Enrique to be better developed characters. Juana is a huge threat to Isabel’s crown at the beginning, and Enrique is the not so loving brother that reluctantly accepts her as his heiress because he has no choice. Unfortunately they are reduced to the shrill teenage girl and an effeminate king who cannot decide if he wants power or family. (Notice how I have not said anything about Fernado–don’t worry, it’s coming.)
Finally, the ugly confusing/frustrating:
As the other half of the power couple, Fernando is an ambiguous character. And this is not supposed to be a compliment. I have trouble grasping his characterization and he is the male lead of the book! It boggles my mind.
First of all, Fernando appears very early in the story, while his historical counterpart does not meet Isabel until their wedding. There are two camps of historical accuracy, where one believes that it is sacrilege to deviate from the truth while the other believes that it is tolerable if it allows better storytelling. I fall into the second camp, and I do not mind his earlier introduction initially. However, upon reflection I believe that it is a weird choice that adds to his confusing characterization. His fictional relationship with Isabel is a major turning point for Isabel’s character, and while I appreciated Isabel evolving as a character I do not understand why Fernado will be the one to point her to the light. Isabel is a powerful queen in her own right, and I am certain one of her many advisers can point her to the right direction, or Isabel can have come to the realization herself that there are certain steps that she should take if she want to stay alive! In contrast, Gortner paints the young Fernado as a decent, kind-hearted and honourable Prince of Aragon through their fictional relationship. This weakens Isabel as a character as well as serves as an odd contrast to the Fernado after their marriage.
When they meet again—this time finally matching up to the historical timeline right before their wedding—he is a ruler that is motivated by something other than wanting to help out Isabel just because he wants to. While I understand that he is a king and kings often have a multiple sides, he just transforms into someone completely different. Ferando is shown as someone that only cares about the consolidation of power more than Isabel during some scenes, and there are other scenes where he is willing to wholeheartedly support her and loves Isabel because she is Isabel and not the Queen of Castile. Of course, wanting power and loving Isabel does not have to be mutually exclusive, but Gortner fails to show how Fernando as a person can reconcile these facets of his personality and be a three dimensional person. Hence I walk away from scratching my head—is all of it a lie? Does he love with her? Is he in love with her but loves power and Castile more? What is Ferando’s true purpose in marrying Isabel besides what history books has revealed? I can never pinpoint Fernado as a character and that is just frustrating and makes the read a rather odd one.
There are parts of this book that I love, and I appreciate how Gortner’s love for intrigue and historical details allow me to understand more about Isabel of Castile’s reign, as well as all the surrounding players that makes her reign so fascinating. I just wish that some of the issues can be tightened to make this a more fulfilling reading experience as opposed to a perplexing and frustrating one.