The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner
Paperback, 400 pages
Published: May 5, 2009 by Ballantine Books (1st Published July 1, 2006)
Setting: Spain (15th Century)
The Last Queen opens in 1492, a “Year of Miracles.” A Portuguese explorer claims to have found a “New World” after landing on a mosquito-infested island, and Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella have achieved the “reconquest” of Spain from the Moors. Juana of Castile, the second daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, grows up in the midst of holy wars between Catholics and Muslims. We see makeshift tents and smoldering embers on the battlefield, glimpse catapults and flaming rocks hurled at castle walls, and feel cinder dust in our faces as this novel pulls us in.
Juana grows from an intelligent, spirited girl, filled with wonder about the world around her, into a beautiful young woman. Like her sisters, she has been reared to make a politically advantageous match. As soon as she is of age, she is wed to Philip of Flanders. Known as “Philip the Fair” for his good looks, he wins her heart, and her passion for him continues even as his egotistical, petty, ambitious nature begins to infect her life.
Juana is probably best remembered for her eccentricities. She was passionate about Philip, raged openly against his infidelities and, as a young widow, kept the coffin containing his corpse with her for many years. She was known as Juana la Loca, Juana the Mad. Historians have speculated that she was schizophrenic or bipolar. In The Last Queen, Gortner casts her in a less pathological light. She is an intelligent, passionate, courageous woman driven by her loyalty to her family and her love for Spain. She’s forced to fight against men she has loved to defend her role as Queen Isabella’s successor to the throne and protect Spain from ruin.
Gortner did an amazing job of animating this character and making me care intensely about her. I felt Juana’s love and loyalty, passion, misplaced trust, rage, and terror. He ingeniously draws us into her mind and emotions, revealing infamous episodes from her life from a different angle so we understand her actions. He also touches on a important facet of history that we don’t get from textbooks, the misrepresentation of women as emotionally unstable, hysterical, and even insane to rob them of their power.
This is a beautifully woven story with a wealth of historical detail, compelling characters, and vibrant descriptive writing. The author took me through the landscape of early Renaissance Europe with rich, colorful descriptive detail without slowing down the pace of the novel. It is suspenseful and moving, even heart-wrenching. I read this 360+ page book practically in one sitting, staying up until the wee hours of the morning. I just didn’t want to put it down.