In researching the Tenochtitlan Trilogy, I have had to learn a great deal about cultural norms and the historical traditions of Renaissance Spain. I picked up The Queen’s Vow because I wanted to brush up on my knowledge of the Reconquista and figured it would be interesting to read a novel on Queen Isabella’s life.
As far as I know, Isabella has not received much attention in historical fiction. To be fair, I read primarily in English, but I also would not be all that surprised if she does not receive much attention in non-English historical fiction. After all, she and her husband are both very polarizing figures on account of the Spanish Inquisition and the Expulsion Edict. Nonetheless, there is no rule that historical novels ust be told from the perspective of individuals who made decisions that would be considered just in a modern day context and Gorton does a great job of recreating the historical milieu that produced Isabella of Castille.
At the start of the story, she is a young impressionable girl who has only a vague sense of her status. Her heritage accords her a great deal of rank, but it also places her in great danger. With the threat of abduction and assassination hanging over her head like the sword of Damocles she is forced to seek protection from any who are willing to aid her cause. In some cases, this means accepting condescending manipulative counselors into her inner circle and even informs her marital decisions.
Determined to decide her own fate, Isabella takes the bold step of marrying Ferdinand of Aragon. In doing so, she gives herself the chance to rule in her own right but the decision puts her in direct conflict with the sovereign of a powerful realm. The conflict soon escalates into open warfare and Isabella and Ferdinand raise an army to defend their interests.
Ferdinand and Isabella eventually secure victory over their political foes, but at great personal cost. Both, however, are possessed by a powerful religious zeal and wish to have a country united under one crown and One God. To achieve this goal, they will launch military attacks against former allies, approve a brutal inquisition against converts, and eventually expel all practicing Jews from the country.
These events unfold over the course of numerous decades and Gorton succeeds masterfully in placing the reader in Isabella’s head. To the extent that I have any issue with his narrative decisions, it’s Gorton’s decision to saddle Isablella with a great deal of remorse and guilt. Of course, we can only speculate as to Isabella’s inner thoughts and it’s very possible she did struggle with guilt regarding her role in the Expulsion Edict and the Spanish Inquisition. Then again, she might not have and her actions don’t give much indication that she suffered from pangs of conscience. I personally think it would have been more interesting had Gorton given us a character who was a zealot in her thoughts, rather than just her actions, but one can’t prove a negative and I found the novel very engaging regardless.
There’s a great deal to like about the story in terms of plotting and turns of phrase but if I had to pick one thing I like about the story most, it would be Gorton’s restraint as an author. He strongly implies, for example, that an important character is wasting away from an STI, but never explicitly states anything to that effect and trusts that readers will be able to put the clues together. Not every author places such faith in readers, and these “bread crumbs” help enhance the narrative in numerous respects.
I have not read that much of Gorton’s work, but I enjoyed Queen’s Vow immensely and highly recommend it to readers interested in the Reconquista, women’s history, or the unification of Renaissance Spain.