The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner is a historical novel which gives a fresh perspective on the life of the enigmatic Queen Juana of Castile. Gortner skillfully weaves together the loose threads of fact and fiction into a rare and subtle tragedy. The story of the daughter of Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, known to history Juana la Loca, is usually told with the emphasis on the passion between Juana and her faithless husband, Philip of Flanders. While Gortner’s retelling captures Juana’s passionate nature as never before, he also gives a fuller picture of her unique calamity by going beyond her relationship with miscreant Philip to the larger scope of the situations enveloping her. Until reading this book I had not fully grasped the fierceness of the political intrigues, the familial tug-of-war, and the basic struggle of good versus evil which rent Juana’s heart, mind and soul. Gortner realistically but sensitively paints her gradual descent into agony as she fights to keep herself from unraveling.
The Last Queen combines riveting action with a compassionate portrait of a woman haunted by mental illness. While some fleeting love scenes may not be suitable for very young readers, the gist of the story far surpasses the realm of mere sensuality but takes on the vast range of political, cultural, and spiritual issues that were at stake. Renaissance Europe springs to life in this carefully researched novel, replete with colorful details about the various historical characters. Of course, Juana upstages everyone else. The more wild the incident, the more one can be certain that it truly happened.
Particularly vivid is the portrayal of Queen Isabel; her personality comes through so strongly in the book so that I almost feel that we have met face-to-face. Other than the fact that she was a queen and a matron, Isabel reminds me of the great St. Teresa of Avila, possessing similar determination and luminous faith. Juana’s father Ferdinand is a complex character. One cannot help but love him like Juana does, which makes his later actions all the more disturbing.
Outraged in every way, Juana’s ordeal encompasses the full gamut of suffering so as to have universal relevance. Hers was a dauntless courage. Her love of her people caused her not to flinch from any sacrifice. I marvel at her tenacity and greatness of heart, qualities shared with her mother Queen Isabel, and with her sister Catherine of Aragon, Queen of England. Juana, like Catherine, had a long battle with the powers of darkness incarnated in a turncoat spouse. Like Catherine, Juana’s greatest love became her greatest foe and betrayer. Each queen had to endure disgrace and isolation for refusing to compromise on essentials. It is difficult to say which sister had the most complete immolation. They take their place with other tragic Catholic queens of history, such as Mary Queen of Scots and, of course, Marie-Antoinette.
(*The Last Queen was sent to me as a gift from the author.) Share