Spain is difficult for historical fiction readers. Say "Spain" and thoughts trigger of bullfights, bloodshed, torture, and religious fanaticism. Spanish figures in many HF novels are usually saints (heroic, devout Katherine of Aragon), or villains (the evil Armada bearing down on poor beleaguered Elizabeth I). And true, much of Spain's history IS dark, blood-drenched, and overhung by religion. But C.W. Gortner does something remarkable in "The Queen's Vow" - he takes this country and its complicated history, and makes it real. Better than that, he makes it ours - and through the eyes of a queen who is herself the possessor of a checkered reputation: Isabella of Castile, who funded Christopher Columbus, expelled the Jews from Spain, and brought the Spanish Inquisition down on her people.
But she is much more than that, and Gortner gently humanizes this daunting figure without glossing over some of her less appealing (but accurate-for-her-time) faults, such as her distaste for homosexuals and her conviction that non-Christians are hell-bound. He introduces us instead to Isabella the young girl, negotiating the snakepit politics of her brother's court with a touching grace. Her religiousity is not mere fanaticism but her only comfort in a very dangerous world that wants to sully and kill her. Her bravery in seeking out a mate who will accept her as fellow queen and partner leads her to brash warrior Fernando of Aragon; their romance is passionate but realistic, since this couple has its problems over the years and Fernando has considerable struggles acknowledging his wife as true equal. Together they achieve some truly splendid things: victory over the intruding Moors, the beginnings of universities and education for women, and above all the uniting of a fractured series of warring kingdoms into a world power known as Spain. Isabella might be short-sighted (when she prays earnestly over whether history will condemn her for expelling the Jews, you want to reach through the page and yell in her ear) but she is also a hard-working visionary who carries her country on her back, and never complains about the cost of that burden. She understands her country and she loves it, and through her eyes, you will too. An insightful book about a fascinating woman, and an eye-opening insider view of an often-maligned country.