When I first came upon Eva Wiseman's novel about 15th century Spain, it sounded like it ha...moreRead This Review & More Like It On My Blog!
2.5 out of 5
When I first came upon Eva Wiseman's novel about 15th century Spain, it sounded like it had everything going for it: an intrepid and conflicted main character, an infamous villain for the ages, an often-ignored but compelling event in history - until I opened the first chapter. What this ended up as was rather superficial story that is too short and too undeveloped to carry any kind of depth or real feeling. I was quickly disillusioned with what was in store for me in this very short young-adult historical novel because my expectations were severely let down by obvious and predictable plotting, little-to-no-characterization and inconsistencies. The Last Song tells the story of fourteen-year-old Isabel, and her family of Converso Catholics in the middle of the Inquistion of Torquemada, and was one I felt rather lukewarm about while reading.
Though this is a novel that cameos visits and appearances from actual historical personages (Ferdinand & Isabel, Torquemada, Isaac Abravanel) in addition to its cast of imaginary people, none of them have life. Torquemada is the architect of all the strife in the book but he is neither distinctive, compelling or charismatic as a villain. Much like Isabel's mother/Isabel's father/Isabel's love interest Yonah (seeing a pattern yet?), he is simply there, wooden and undeveloped. I also had issues with Caterina and Isabel after their husband/father is taken away twice by the holy Inquisition - this will get a bit spoilery so be warned! The family has had a plan in store for SEVENTY PAGES, one prepared for this exact event, and it has to happen twice with weeks before they use their "failproof" plan. I was so frustrated by this obvious cluelessness on behalf of the women that I saw it as a cheap method used to drive the plot forward. Seriously, how do two scared women fighting for their lives and family forget their "Get Out of Torture Free" card/letter?
The plot follows a fairly totally predictable route from the beginning on and never diverges into something greater, more original. Isabel's struggles and problems are no more unique than a thousand historical fiction YA heroines betrothed to someone they loathe with feelings for another, impossible match. It's hard to review a character with so little to recommend or distinguish her, because like I said earlier, Isabel was there. She was serviceable, she did what was required of her for the plot advancement and nothing more. If you erase "Isabel"'s name and input "Luis" "Caterina" or any other, the result would be the same: they played their defined roles and nothing less.
All that aside, I really do like the cover. It does a nice job of hinting at the blood and pain that accompany Torquemada and his familiars wherever they go.(less)
The Queen's Vow is a great first introduction to a well-known and well-recommended historic...moreRead This Review & More Like It On My Blog!
4.5 out of 5
The Queen's Vow is a great first introduction to a well-known and well-recommended historical fiction author. I've heard and seen C.W. Gortner's name bandied about frequently as one of the best for compelling, researched and still original novels and every claim is only reinforced by my reading experience with this novel about Castile's complicated and dramatic queen. Without condescension or annoying repetition, this mostly-factual story of 15th-century hotbed of war, religious strife and rebellion in what is now known as simply Spain, is riveting from start to finish - once The Queen's Vow, and the formidable Isabella, hit their stride, it is nearly impossible to put down. Told with an even pace and a clear voice, this four-hundred page, multi-part novel pretty much guaranteed that I will be reading more by this author, and soon. In a genre that can often seem quite overbloated with English and French-situated books, this exploration into the fertile and sunbaked lands of Spain is a welcome and exciting change.
The most remarkable aspect of the entire endeavor is the main character of Isabella herself. With the advantage of perspective and history on our side, it's clear that the infanta of Castile is a woman of complicated nature; someone that is sadly often naive in her religious judgments, but one who is conversely amazingly progressive in terms of women's education and rights (see her intransigence on the rights of her daughters/Castile's and her own sovereignty from Aragon/Ferdinand until an heir is born). C.W. Gortner is a skilled writer that somehow manages to paint a fully-realized and wholly fallible version of the renowned and reviled monarch while still rendering the final character likeable and authentic in her determined role and behaviors. Accepting both good and bad facets of her personality and her reign, The Queen's Vow offers up possible reasons for the cruel decisions Isabella made for her realm without diverging too far from the roadmap of history. It's easy to both root for Isabella in her desperate times and to curse at her when she is so easily manipulated (Carrillo, Enrique, Torquemada, even Ferdinand.) Throughout all her trials and even her mishaps, it cannot be denied that this Isabella has life and is never boring to read.
It's a credit to both the author and the novel itself that because Isabella is a historical figure largely ignored on her own noteworthy merits (maaaybe vaguely known to the general populace because of the connection Christopher Columbus) her story here is completely fresh and engaging. Unlike the Tudors/Borgias, who have been done over and over (with varying degrees of success), this view into the overlooked Trastamara royal family is happily unreminiscent of any other historical fiction I've read. The tertiary characters are a bit hard to keep track of initially due to my lack of experience with this setting, but the author eases the reader comfortably into the Castile he has reimagined. The endless wars and battles, the required Court intrigue, the drama - all were evenly and uniformly handled in The Queen's Vow. Despite the fact that war was pretty much the normal state of being for Isabella and her husband, the novel is careful to mix the battles between many other historical events so as not to sacrifice the principles' characterization or plot advancement. Time easily speeds by while turning the pages - for the real world as well as the pacing of the book. The novel can breeze over years at a time with a sentence, which didn't bother me so much as streamline the narrative of a real person.
The Queen's Vow is a going to a hit with historical fiction lovers. There's a lot to love - the sweet but imperfect marriage between the "Catholic Monarchs", the tried and true lure of Court intrigue and betrayal. The novel terminates before the end of Isabella's life, leaving it somewhat open-ended in regards to the main character, if not the final conflict. If you're looking for a well-written and engaging novel with a strong, fallible character, look no further. (less)