Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Last Queen by C W Gortner

Juana of Castile, the last queen of Spanish blood to inherit her country’s throne, is an enigmatic figure, shrouded in lurid myth. Was she the bereft widow of legend who was driven mad by her loss, or has history misjudged a woman who was ahead of her time? In his stunning new novel, C.W. Gortner challenges centuries of myths about Queen Juana, unraveling the mystery surrounding her to reveal a brave, determined woman we can only now begin to fully understand.

The third child of Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand of Spain, Juana is born amidst her parents’ ruthless unification of their kingdom, bearing witness to the fall of Granada and Columbus’s discoveries. At the age of sixteen, she is sent to wed Philip, the Archduke of Flanders, as part of her parents’ strategy to strengthen Spain, just as her youngest sister, Catherine of Aragon, is sent to England to become the first wife of Henry VIII.

Juana finds unexpected love and passion with her handsome young husband, the sole heir to the Hapsburg Empire. At first she is content with her children and her life in Flanders. But when tragedy strikes and she inherits the Spanish throne, Juana finds herself plunged into a struggle for power against her husband that grows to involve the major monarchs of Europe. Besieged by foes on all sides, her intelligence and pride used as weapons against her, Juana vows to win her crown and save Spain from ruin, even if it could cost her everything . . . .

With brilliant, lyrical prose, author and historian C. W. Gortner conjures Juana through her own words, taking the reader from the somber majesty of Spain to the glittering and lethal courts of Flanders, France, and Tudor England. The Last Queen brings to life all the grandeur and drama of an incomparable era; and the singular humanity of this courageous, passionate princess whose fight to claim her birthright captivated the world.

As much as I love reading historical fiction that is set in England, every now and again I really appreciate a change of location and characters. If that sounds a bit like you, then you can't really go wrong with The Last Queen by C W Gortner.

Whilst a lot of historical fiction fans will be familiar with the life and times of Catherine of Aragon, I must confess that I knew very little about any of her other family members. In this book, the author focuses on the life of Juana, Catherine's older sister who married into the Hapsberg family, to Phillip of Flanders (known as Phillip the Handsome). What started out as an arranged marriage quickly turned into a passionate, loving marriage but just as quickly turns into a passionate marriage of what can be a far stronger emotion - loathing and hate.

Due to a series of tragedies that hit the Aragonese royal family, Juana becomes the rightful heir to the Castilian throne. She is however forced to fight for her birthright against not only against her husband who was determined to claim the throne for himself, but also against the church, her own remaining family members, and against the distrust of the idea of a queen reigning.

As husband and wife engage in political power plays to try and gain the upper hand, as family members betray each other, and as mother becomes separated both physically and emotionally from her children, we are left with a portrayal of a woman who many would have envied as having everything, but who is left with nothing. Some of the choices that Juana did make seem somewhat foolhardy and yes, slightly mad, and the author does not shy away from these events. The portrayal of Juana is handled with sensitivity and perceptiveness, and yet as a reader, it is quite easy to be swept up in the drama and the emotion of the story.

I am glad to have been introduced to this fascinating character who in some ways is a footnote in history for many non-Europeans. I will definitely be looking forward to reading more from C W Gortner.

Rating 4.5/5


  1. Excellent review! Juana is quite a complex character and I wish there were more to read about her.

    Now I'll have to check this out!

  2. Wonderful review Marg! You really captured the essence of what it is about for me. I can hardly wait to read this one!

  3. Definitely a great book! I have the blog tour links on his guest post at The Burton Review.

  4. Great review - I'm looking forward to reading this book.