Love and Drama with Isabella and Fernando: The Queen’s Vow by C.W. Gortner

Review of The Queen’s Vow, C.W Gortner
Ballantine Books/Random House Publishing

Note:  Keep reading for an original interview with C.W. Gortner!

The Queen’s Vow, by C.W. Gortner, was so eloquently written with a passion and fervor reminiscent of the time it’s set in~the rise of Queen Isabella and King Fernando of Spain in the mid 1400s~that it propelled me to continue reading it without ceasing and made me cry for more of the story even as I read the last paragraph.

Gortner hit the high mark with me on The Queen’s Vow; I didn’t want to have to use my bookmark. His writing is engaging, smooth, emotional, detailed and intense. I was compelled by the story telling he wound around his research into one of the most exciting periods of history.

Though many assumed that Isabella would never be Queen, she thrusted through the rules of the day that men set in place for women, as well as forging past intrigue and conniving paperwork clauses, religious notions and advisors, and her own guilty conscience and merciful heart, to leave a legacy almost unrivaled.

Always believing that female heirs were as entitled as male heirs, she held fast in her belief that she was true heir to her half-brother King Enrique’s reign in Castile (through their same father) and not his illegitimate daughter, Joanna.  King Enrique was known for overindulging in his many luxuries, as well as running Castile into the ground financially (and with no upkeep of holdings, literally) and making it vulnerable to attacks from many sides.  This was especially disheartening because during this time Spain was fractured into several countries and not all under one rule. 

One such area besides Castile (which was the largest) was Aragon. This is from where Princess Isabella meets her true love, Prince Fernando, whom she saw only once when she was first brought to Castile as a young teenager. However, anyone from Aragon at that time was deemed not worthy to marry any royalty from Castile and they forbid her union. Building their love from afar, Princess Isabella vows to marry Fernando.  Secretly, they do so to the horror of many around them.  Together they work to fight off those who attack Castile and their territories, while they also work on making heirs to their own throne (which will unite Castile and Aragon into one country) that they ascertain once King Enrique dies a painful death. 

The way the book read I felt this amazing woman never rested for a minute. I was more and more proud to be a woman with each chapter. Reading about her strong presence in politics was astounding as I could imagine her signing a declaration one minute and bending over in labor the next.  She rode to the battlefield while with child, organized warfare, cuddled with her children, and cared for her subjects. She assisted in raising her children more lovingly than most monarchs in history and she left a legacy of peace for Spain, brought the first printing press to her country and was the first queen in Europe to mandate that women could earn degrees. Not only that, but she was a visionary, supporting and urging Christopher Columbus in his endeavors to find new lands, though she did also eventually oppose slavery of the First Peoples.

Gortner did a phenomenal job depicting Queen Isabella’s heart and how she must have truly been, taking into account her caring and merciful soul. I could ultimately feel her strength and passion leaping from the page and swoon at her love for her Fernando.

Being a lover of English, French and Russian history, I’ve never truly read a story featuring Spainish monarchs. I’ve only read of Columbus and the various Spanish explorers. With this book now read, I have to truly say that I am now seeking more on the subject and I’m going to start with Gortner’s The Last Queen, which is the story of Isabella’s daughter, Juana.

Synopsis of The Queen’s Vow

No one believed I was destined for greatness.

So begins Isabella’s story, in this evocative, vividly imagined novel about one of history’s most famous and controversial queens—the warrior who united a fractured country, the champion of the faith whose reign gave rise to the Inquisition, and the visionary who sent Columbus to discover a New World. Acclaimed author C. W. Gortner envisages the turbulent early years of a woman whose mythic rise to power would go on to transform a monarchy, a nation, and the world.

Young Isabella is barely a teenager when she and her brother are taken from their mother’s home to live under the watchful eye of their half-brother, King Enrique, and his sultry, conniving queen. There, Isabella is thrust into danger when she becomes an unwitting pawn in a plot to dethrone Enrique. Suspected of treason and held captive, she treads a perilous path, torn between loyalties, until at age seventeen she suddenly finds herself heiress of Castile, the largest kingdom in Spain. Plunged into a deadly conflict to secure her crown, she is determined to wed the one man she loves yet who is forbidden to her—Fernando, prince of Aragon.

As they unite their two realms under “one crown, one country, one faith,” Isabella and Fernando face an impoverished Spain beset by enemies. With the future of her throne at stake, Isabella resists the zealous demands of the inquisitor Torquemada even as she is seduced by the dreams of an enigmatic navigator named Columbus. But when the Moors of the southern domain of Granada declare war, a violent, treacherous battle against an ancient adversary erupts, one that will test all of Isabella’s resolve, her courage, and her tenacious belief in her destiny.

From the glorious palaces of Segovia to the battlefields of Granada and the intrigue-laden gardens of Seville, The Queen’s Vow sweeps us into the tumultuous forging of a nation and the complex, fascinating heart of the woman who overcame all odds to become Isabella of Castile.

Interview with C.W. Gortner, Author

Christopher, THANK YOU so much for joining me on my blog, Oh for the Hook of a Book! Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres to read and I absolutely love your writing. I am so excited to virtually chat with you about your life as an author, your writing, and your books.

Hi Erin, it’s lovely to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me and for your kind words. I’m honored. 🙂

Let’s get started with the interview now, and as always, I allow people to ask questions in the comments section! That is, unless I ask everything first. Ha!

Q: You’re a historical fiction author, so you must love history. I’ve always loved history myself and really delved into foreign history in college, ultimately majoring in it out of pure love!  That’s my story, but when did you first become fascinated with it and how have you fueled that passion over the years?

A: I’m half-Spanish by birth and was raised near the city of Malaga, which is the site of one of Isabella’s more terrifying experiences in The Queen’s VowThere was also a ruined castle (now fully restored) close to where I lived, so I basically grew up with history all around me. It wasn’t just in school and in books; I could see its palpable remnants. I was always intrigued by the personalities, too, especially the fascinating women with such controversial reputations. My fascination never abated; throughout my formative years, I read everything I could and became interested in what lies underneath the veneer of what we call ‘fact’; the stories hidden within stories, so to speak. That fueled my desire to both uncover and write these secret stories.

Q:  You often write about fabulously strong women from the past such as Catherine de Medici and Juana of Castile. What spurs this interest? What inspires you?

A: I have found that historical women, in particular those I’m attracted to as a novelist, have not had much of a say in how their history was depicted. As I studied history, I began to see a repetitive pattern  of stereotyping: Elizabeth I is the virgin; Catherine de Medici  the crone; Isabella of Castile the fanatic; and Juana, her daughter, subject of my first novel, the victim; and so on. It was easier— certainly, simpler— to relegate these complex women to clichés. However, the truth is much more interesting. All of these women were fallible, extraordinary, flesh-and-blood human beings. Their motivations aren’t so simply defined; the challenge for me, the inspiration that spurs my writing, is the desire to get underneath their skins and try to discover the actual person they may have been.

Q:  How do you decide which women move you enough to write about? How do you begin your research for your books?

A: She must have a controversial element in her life that captures my attention. I’m not really that interested in straightforward characters: I’m attracted to complexity, contradictions. Inevitably, these women’s lives aren’t easy, in some instances, but they do defy the norm. Research can begin years before, often in preparation for another book. For example, it was while writing The Last Queen, my first novel, about Juana of Castile, that I became engrossed in her mother, Isabella. I portray Isabella’s last twelve years in that novel, so I focused my research on that particular portion of her life; however, I also researched her earlier years, to get a better sense of who she had been and how she developed as a woman and queen. For me, research is ongoing; I gather bits and pieces, tucking away what I don’t need at that moment for possible future use.

Q: Do you have to travel frequently to do your research? If so, what is the best experience you’ve had?

A: Yes, I always travel to the countries and extant places where my characters lived; it’s important to me to get a feel for the landscape and experience it, even if a lot has changed. There really is no substitute for “being there.” One of the best experiences I had was dancing a galliard in the great hall at Hampton Court; I was touring the palace, and was unexpectedly invited to dance with a group who was re-enacting Tudor dances. I took a quick 5-minute lesson and was then led into the dance by a lovely lady with long dark hair, clad in a dark green dress. I have to say, it was amazing to realize I was dancing in the very place where Anne Boleyn must have danced with Henry VIII!

Q:  Where would you like to go that you haven’t been to yet? Where do you want to go back to?

A: I’d love to visit Russia. I have a fascination with Russian history. And I’m always happy to return to Rome; it’s one of my favorite cities in the world.

Q:  What intrigued you the most about Isabella of Castile? In your research to pen your novel, did anything stand out and surprise you?

A: I was intrigued by her duality. She had this incredible commitment to the good of her country and her people, and yet she sanctioned something as monstrous as the Inquisition. She defies easy explanation. I was very surprised to discover how forward-thinking she was in terms of women’s education. She herself had rudimentary schooling, while she regretted; she even set herself to learning Latin when she was queen and had each of her daughters educated in the new style. Isabella’s daughters were regarded as the best-educated princesses in Europe. Isabella also set forth the first decree allowing women to not only gain degrees in Spanish universities but also to teach there, thus opening the doors to higher learning for women who’d previously been denied access. Isabella also championed literacy and imported the first printing presses to Spain, thus seeding the golden era of literature of the 17th century.

Q:  How do you hope readers will feel about Isabella of Castile? How did you feel when you completed your novel?

A: I hope readers will come away with an understanding of the complex challenges she faced and of her strength, as well as her fallibility. In the end, she was human, like us. She made horrible mistakes and she accomplished extraordinary feats. Isabella was an exceptional woman, and also very much a product of her time. I personally felt a sense of having come full circle in regards to Isabella; having depicted her as the older queen in my first novel, it was rewarding, and challenging, to return to her life. I’ve always wanted to write about her. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity.

Q: What types of traits do you feel that women from the Renaissance period had that allowed them to overcome the issues of the day? Do women today have the same strengths? Why or why not?

A:  I think that all of us, men and women, have the same inner strengths that our antecedents had, only those of us who have the luxury of living in developed countries and cities tend to get indolent; we forget just how fortunate we are in terms of our access to medicine, domestic comforts, food, etc.  Women of the Renaissance faced death every day on a very real level:  there were no antibiotics and a crude understanding of how disease afflicted the human body:  infections, viruses, even childbirth could kill. Women had to be strong and vital to overcome the obstacles of daily life; it was a question of survival, even if you lived in a palace. The wealthiest were as vulnerable as anyone else to catastrophe. It’s the same today, to a certain extent: all it takes is one natural disaster for us to realize just how vulnerable we are. The main difference is, people of the Renaissance knew it all the time. They incorporated mortality into the fabric of their existence, whereas we, as a whole, tend to avoid it.

Q:  The first book I ever read by you was The Tudor Secret and I loved it. Taking place in the time right prior to Queen Elizabeth I’s rise to the throne, it was the tale of a male servant’s role as a spy at court. What made you decide to write a mystery/suspense historical novel and what are the future plans for this series?

A: I decided to write The Tudor Secret, really, because no one wanted my stand-alone historical novels! It was written years ago, after both The Last Queen and The Confessions of Catherine de Medici had been rejected by more than 20 publishers. My agent at the time suggested I might have better luck breaking into the market if I wrote a mystery. Of course, I decided instead to do a thriller /adventure about a Tudor spy with a secret of his own, and it didn’t sell, either. So, I self-published it under its original title, “The Secret Lion” and it eventually attracted the attention of my current agent. After she sold my first two books to Random House, an editor at St Martin’s Press, who’d loved my work for years but been unable to acquire it, bought the spy thriller and re-titled it The Tudor Secret. He also wanted two more in the series, which we called the Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles. So, it goes to show, you never know when that door will open. I love writing the Spymaster books because I get the chance to play with fictional characters, interacting with historical ones. I also like that my lead character, Brendan, is a man of shadows, caught between two opposing world. I hope the series continues to grow and find its readers. For the moment, I have finished the second in the series and it’ll be published in 2013. Titled THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY, it takes place a few months after the events in The Tudor Secret. During the harsh winter of 1554, Brendan returns to court, where Mary Tudor is now queen, and goes undercover to help save Elizabeth from a treasonous plot in which the princess may be a willing participant. It’s a darker novel than the first one; Brendan matures and realizes the true dangers of his life as a spy.

Q:  What other historical time periods or people intrigue you?

A: I’ve mentioned Russia. I’m also intrigued by ancient Egypt, and the early medieval era in Europe. I like Edwardian and Victorian England, too.

Q: How do you keep your writing voice flowing so well? You seem to write non-stop and are very successful at turning out books each year. What is your secret?

A: I’m disciplined, even when I’m not inspired. Writing is my job. I write for pleasure too, naturally, but not every day is a party at the keyboard. Like everyone else, there are days when I’d rather go shopping. But I write 5 days a week, regardless. I’m under contract; I’ve been given a portion of an advance and I have a daily word-count to meet. And I’ve learned that even if what I write is awful at first –and it often is – it can always be improved during revision. The tough part is just getting that first draft out. Everything can be fixed, except a blank page.

Q:  Do you have any advice for other aspiring authors about how to manage time and balance life with writing and research?

A: Persevere. Publishing is a tough business and is in transition; though there are more options than ever before, with each option comes the responsibility of being true to your vision for your work. No one can say which way is best: you have to decide that for yourself. Whatever you do, give it your all and write the very best book you can. Write every day, even if it’s only a paragraph; stay in touch with the nuts-and-bolts of the craft itself. Have a life, as well: know when to stop and let things steep. Writing benefits from time away to gain perspective, especially when the going gets rough. With research, remember it is a master seducer. We can research for years, without ever actually writing a word of the book. Learn only what you need to know to get writing and pick up the rest as you go.

Q:  I thoroughly enjoyed working on a writing project for charity with you this year. I know that charity work with animals is near and dear to your heart (a compassionate heart by the way). What types of animal protection issues do you feel are important currently? How do you feel people can assist more in environmental and animal security?

A: We all need to be more conscious of how we, as a species, impact life on this fragile planet. We share our mother earth with beautiful, irreplaceable animals that cannot defend themselves against our relentless encroachment and consumption of resources. A little change can go a long way: don’t buy or wear any type of fur. Know where your food comes from, to the best of your ability. Get involved in local charities and protect wildlife in your area. Likewise, please adopt all pets, and of course, make sure they are spayed or neutered. Thousands of dogs and cats are euthanized every single day because of overpopulation and irresponsible breeding. An animal has the same noble heart, whether purebred or mixed. My corgi is a rescue; if every one of us adopted a rescue animal, shelters wouldn’t be as overcrowded or desperate for funds. And if you can’t adopt, foster, volunteer time, donate money and supplies. Get involved.

Q:  What other books are you working on currently? What is the idea behind them and what made you choose the topic?

A: I’m writing my fourth historical novel for Random House, this time about Lucrezia Borgia. Thrust into notoriety as the pope’s daughter, Lucrezia embarks on a savage struggle to escape the web of her family’s ambitions. Once again, I’ve found myself drawn to a woman who’s been vilified by history; I’m completely enthralled by Lucrezia and her world, as I hope readers will be.

Q:  Do you have any future historical figures in mind to make come alive on the page for your readers?

A: I do, but it’s a secret 🙂

Q: Where can readers find your books?

A: Of course, in most physical bookstores. If they don’t have the book in stock, they can always order it. Please buy via independent stores online here: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780345523969

Or via the usual online suspects:

Amazon: http://bitsy.me/76i

B&N: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-queens-vow-c-w-gortner/1110779310?ean=9780345523969

Q:  What is the best way for readers to connect to you?

A: Via my website here: http://www.cwgortner.com/contact.html

I have enjoyed getting to know you author mind better, Christopher, and I love your work. Thanks for stopping by my blog! Best wishes on the success of The Queen’s Vow.

Thank you, Erin, for having me. It’s always a delight to visit with bloggers and I sincerely hope your readers enjoy our Q&A and THE QUEEN’S VOW.

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C.W. Gortner, Author Bio

C.W. GORTNER holds an MFA in Writing with an emphasis in Renaissance Studies from the New College of California.

In his extensive travels to research his books, he has danced a galliard in a Tudor great hall and experienced life in a Spanish castle. His novels have garnered international praise and been translated into thirteen languages to date. He is also a dedicated advocate for animal rights and environmental issues.

He’s currently at work on his fourth novel for Ballantine Books, about the early years of Lucrezia Borgia, as well as the third novel in his Tudor series,The Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles (US) or Elizabeth’s Spymaster (UK).

Half-Spanish by birth, C.W. lives in Northern California.

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5 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Q and A with Authors

5 responses to “Love and Drama with Isabella and Fernando: The Queen’s Vow by C.W. Gortner

  1. Great interview, Erin! You asked some really great questions. Christopher is definitely an interesting person and very nice too. 🙂

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  2. Thank you so much for inviting me, Erin. I’m very honored to be here and enjoyed our interview. Also, thank you for the lovely review. I hope your readers enjoy THE QUEEN’S VOW.

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  3. You’re most welcome. I hope everyone enjoys the book as much as I did.

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  4. I really enjoyed this one too! Great review!

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