The Queen’s Vow is a good, engaging, informative novel about Isabella of Castile (she of the famous Ferdinand-and-Isabella duo). It’s told in the first-person voice and uses some predictable shortcuts to make Isabella an engaging and likeable character for the modern reader. There’s nothing really surprising here, but it is informative for a reader who wants to know more about Spain during the period of the Reconquista or about the life of a remarkable woman leader.
Gortner goes too far, I think, in trying to make Isabella’s less politically-correct decisions, like that whole Inquisition/expulsion of the Jews thing, palatable for modern readers. It seems that so often the writers of historical fiction endow their ancient characters with modern sensibilities (for an egregious example, check out my review of Pope Joan) and then have the problem of shoehorning those characters’ actual historical actions into the person they’ve created. This leads to a bit of fancy footwork so that we can feel sorry for this terrible, heart-wrenching decision Isabella has to make, yet somehow realize that she has no other choice. I’d rather see a historical fiction writer go the way of Philippa Gregory’s depiction of Margaret Beaufort in The Red Queen and just make the character’s religious beliefs and prejudices absolutely an integral part of her character, reminding us of how truly alien these people’s mindset was to ours. But in doing that, of course, you may sacrifice character likeability.
Despite these all-too-common shortcuts of historical fiction writing, I enjoyed reading The Queen’s Vow and learned about from it. I was interested in this particular royal family after reading Sister Queens, about Isabella’s daughters Katherine and Juana, and now I see that Gortner has also written a novel about Juana. I’ll probably be reading that, since it struck me when reading the biography that Juana’s is a story that can only be told through fiction, so little being known about her life from her own perspective.