The Queen’s Vow
I’m delighted (and honoured) to have been asked to take part in the blog tour of C.W.Gortner, author of the newly-released ‘The Queen’s Vow’. I’ve recently finished reading the book (the first of the author’s I have tried) and was impressed and pleased with the work.
The Queen’s Vow is one of the smoothest, most emotive historical novels I have read in some time. I have not read Gortner’s earlier books, though one in particular has caught my eye from time to time as a ‘will read’. This one held a particular appeal to me when I discovered that its subject was Isabella of Castile, and so I dived in.
I will state for the record that the book is not my usual fare. While I am a voracious reader of historical fiction, I tend towards the military, action-packed, blood-and-guts tales of Rome, the Civil War or Napoleonic campaigns. I rarely read tales of more court-based life or family sagas. The Queen’s Vow is very much a saga of a family in the court circles of Castile and Aragon, seen from the perspective of the young woman who will become one of Spain’s most famous historical figures. While there are murders and treachery, wars and sieges and violent unpleasant deaths, they are all seen from the perspective of the recipient of their report rather than seen first hand. This is not meant in any way as a condemnation, just a reporting of the style of the work – the tale, after all, is focused on the great Queen and her struggles in the court.
Where this story wins out for me is its style. The tale is evocative of the great dusty, dry world of medieval central Spain, draws the reader into the mindset of an innocent in such a twisted, dangerous world as the Castilian court, and delivers a flavour of the era so clear that the reader can almost taste and smell the world Isabella experiences.
There are elements in there that brought scenes and flashes of great movies to mind for me. The scenery and lands in the timeless ‘El Cid’, the loss of girlish innocence in a world of intrigues and plots seen in ‘Elizabeth’ (a plot with many similar elements), the twisted religious fervour of ‘Name of the Rose’. Many others. But if you can picture some of those things it might help give you a flavour of how the Queen’s Vow reads.
The tale follows the life of Isabella (most famously remembered in the company of her later husband Ferdinand) from her youth as an exiled royal scion, through all the twists and turns of a royal succession that should be hers, to the final seat of power and consolidation of her throne that comes with an almost unacceptable price. Isabella begins the tale as a quiet, almost demure and submissive girl, but through a series of dangers and difficult situations and over the years of betrayal and fear, her young, naïve, innocence is hardened like diamond into a powerful vision of her future and belief in herself. With her beloved Fernando (Ferdinand of Aragon) by her side she begins to forge a single realm from the fractured states of Spain and a catholic land from a mixed world of Christian, Jew and Moor.
During this era, so many astounding events that have affected the world as a whole took place, and they all have a place in this story: The Reconquista and the fall of Granada – the final expulsion of the Moors from Spain, the patronage of Christopher Columbus and his plan to find a new route to the Indies, the combining of the two great Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile to forge the future nation of Spain, the foundation and growing power of the Holy Inquisition under the dangerous priest Tomas de Torquemada, and the edicts that led to the expulsion of the Jews from the land. A time of momentous change that saw more upheaval in Spain than any other era, and created the Spain that we know today.
The Queen’s Vow will transport you to that world and bring it to every sense, not just your eyes. You will hear, see, smell, taste and even feel the dry and dangerous world of Isabella, and perhaps even come to understand the hardships that turned the shy Infanta Isabella into the great Queen of history.
On a last word, as an English reader, I sometimes find it jarring when I read historical works by an American writer, as the idioms and common expressions – not to mention spellings – can make the English reader pause and have to make sure of the intended meaning of the sentence. I expect American readers of English writers have the same issue. One thing that really astounded me about Gortner’s prose is that, despite the national differences in language, it read as easily and smoothly as a native English work and I noticed nothing that caught me off guard.
All in all, this is not a work to rush through, as much historical fiction is. You could read it fast, but you would probably not enjoy it as much. Most of the value of this work to me was its flavour and feel, and that is powerfully conveyed if you devote enough time to savouring the book.
I will, for sure, be reading the Last Queen, which, though written earlier, details the next phase of Spain’s historical development.
So there’s my review. However, as an added treat, I had the opportunity last week to pose a few questions for the author, who has kindly answered them for my (and your) edification:
1. I found the feminine perspective in the book thoroughly engrossing. How difficult do you find it to write from that perspective, as a male author? Writing from the perspective of another gender cannot be easy, especially when also taking into account the medieval mindset.
I’m often asked this question and I can’t say it’s easy simply because I think that whenever a writer chooses to inhabit a character in the first person— whether that character is a medieval queen or a serial killer or indeed anyone who is not the writer— we must first slough off the preconceptions, judgments, opinions and preferences that comprise who we are. Otherwise, we cannot become the person who is telling the story; we cannot convince our audience of our character’s sincerity. However, emotion is not defined by gender. We all know longing, desire, hatred, love, fear, ambition, and sorrow. It is our culture which dictates how we may express ourselves, according to our gender. When I write, I engage in preparatory work that helps me strip aside the layers of societal expectation and experiences that make up who I am, so I can discover how my character will experience her world. It probably helps as well that I grew up in a family of strong women; I often sat mesmerized as a boy, listening to my aunts tell stories, exchange secrets and private sorrows. Perhaps I absorbed something of the language that women employ. Whatever the case, I find it comes naturally to me. The only time I’ve had to resort to outside consultation was learning how it felt to give birth.
2. Your descriptive of locations and structures is presented with particular clarity and atmosphere. Have you visited the locations of which you write? It feels as though you have personal experience of them and a solid image in your mind’s eye.
I consider travel an essential component of my research. For me, the experience of seeing the landscape and the places where my characters lived, regardless of how much these may have changed, is invaluable. There are sensory details that books and the internet cannot convey: the color of a sky, the sound of the wind, the shape of a castle as dusk falls. These are the moments that make a story leap to life and I always discover something new and unexpected when I travel, no matter how familiar the country may be to me, as, for example, Spain is. In Seville, while visiting the alcazar, I had a conversation with a curator about Isabella’s stay there that shifted my entire perception of that time in her life. I hadn’t planned to have her flee to Seville to escape her own pain, but after the conversation it became apparent she may have gone to Andalucia for precisely that reason. This is the kind of on-the-ground research I live for!
3. Given the written histories, how far were you obliged to bridge the gap between recorded events and unknown motivations of the people involved?
It’s always a fine line, treading the balance between facts and the emotional motivations of those who lived them. Few people of the medieval and Renaissance eras have left personal memoirs, yet a novelist does not have the luxury of saying, “Well, she did this but we don’t know why.” That is the crucial difference between fiction and non-fiction: for the fiction writer, the why is everything. Without it, there is no story. And so we must piece together what we can from extant documentation, chronicles, ambassadorial dispatches, letters and proclamations, as well as the records of council meetings and such. It’s painstaking work, because we end up shifting through paper in search of an oft-elusive kernel of emotional truth. I like to say that being a historical novelist is like being part psychologist, part sleuth, part forensic investigator, and part game show host. We have to employ all these different skill sets based on relatively few facts, and figure out what our character was feeling. Sometimes we hit on it, and sometimes we have to guess. I try to be as scientific as possible; I work up a detailed psychological and emotional portrait of my character and do my utmost to discover who she may have been in order to determine how she may have felt about key events. But in the end, I do bridge that historical divide with some degree of educated assumption, grounded in as much factual evidence as I can uncover. I think I get close but who knows? I could be dead wrong. That’s part of the challenge and the joy of writing in this genre; you’re never 100% sure.
4. While the story is complete and has a definitive arc, I wondered why you decided to end it with the Jews and Columbus in 1492, when there was a further decade of Isabella’s life with Inquisition troubles and Moorish revolts and in fact the death of their only male heir?
For this particular novel, I wanted to narrow the focus to how a neglected princess became queen. I had already covered Isabella’s later life and death in my first novel The Last Queen, albeit as seen through her daughter Juana’s eyes. Indeed, 1492 is precisely when that book starts. Thus, it seemed like the perfect ending for The Queen’s Vow: that moment of Isabella’s greatest triumph, when she’s become the monarch she was meant to be. I feel for now that my time with her is complete but perhaps I’ll return to her in the future and finish the story of her life in her own words.
6. While the architect of the Inquisition (Torquemada) is portrayed in a dangerous, negative manner (increasingly so during the second half of the book), were you not tempted to make him an outright villain from the outset, given that it would be almost impossible to portray him favourably?
Of course, that is the seduction of the truly malignant in history: they almost demand that we turn them into caricatures. But even Torquemada had his reasons, unfathomable as they are to us. He was a human being with all of our complexity and contradictions, and I wanted to retain this core part of him. I wanted to depict a man of terrifying convictions, who exerted immense persuasion over an impressionable girl who desperately needed to hear that God had a purpose for her, without turning him into a Svengali. Torquemada is a terrible figure in history with a horrible legacy, but if we forget his ultimate humanity, then we accord him a power he does not deserve. In this novel, he is the voice of thousands throughout Europe, who hated and feared those who were different from them. He is the voice of our past and our present: to this very day, there are those among us who preach similar paths of destruction in the name of faith. That is his lesson to us.
Thank you for having me. I’m honored to be here. To learn more about me and my work, please visit me at my website at www.cwgortner.com.
For more reviews and interviews and more, check out the rest of Christopher Gortner’s blog tour: