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Monday, July 30, 2012

The Queen's Vow by C W Gortner

The Queen's Vow starts with a bang and ends on an almost philosophical note that really put me in the year 1492, on the brink of uniting the world's hemispheres at long last.

Oh, those middles.

Especially as the narrative draws to a close, there are more and more patches of time that are reported in a not very engaging way. It seemed the author got exhausted by the incredible demands of the subject matter. If he had had the time two or three books would have given him, he could have covered all the material as vividly as he does in the beginning. I have a PhD in medieval Spanish, so the basic story is all too familiar to me, and I hoped this book could send me back in time to viscerally witness the events as they unfolded. Many scenes are very successful, but they're laced together with straight explanations that needed a little something extra.

In particular, I would really have liked to see a lot more of Torquemada, the most controversial figure in a book full of controversial figures. He's portrayed as a ghoul who shows up at three different points to scare Isabella into setting up the Spanish Inquisition and expelling the Jews from her newly united Spain. I thought it was a missed opportunity to explore exactly what forces would make a person a proponent of such policies, but the character is so complex, he probably needs his own book anyway.

It would also be really nice if more historians would point out for the general public that Spain was the last European country to establish such an inquisition. These institutions were already at work in every other European country. Of course, it lasted a lot longer after that in Spain, but that's another story.

Isabel's female psychology seemed to be just out of reach of the author at times. When she says that she'd like to do all the things a man can do, it seemed like something a man would think a woman would say. Perhaps Isabel la Católica did indeed think women should have all the same advantages as men, but I suspect strongly that she would express it differently, or not at all, just putting on the armor and having done with it because of her obvious pragmatism.

On a more technical note, I'd like to explain that the "don" title in Spanish works the same way as "sir" in English: it's used with the first name. Just as "Sir Elton" and "Sir Elton John" are correct but "Sir John" (in this case) would be an enormous gaffe, so "Don Antonio" and "Don Antonio de Nebrija" are fine, while "Don de Nebrija" is jarringly wrong. This is easy to get right and I hope more editors will get wind of this as more Spanish-themed manuscripts cross their desks.

I was very excited about this book and enjoyed reading it, but I think my expectations might have been too high. So, love this book for the overwhelmingly iconic time it portrays and for the possibility it presents of getting inside the head of one of history's most interesting people. Love it because of the affection with which the author writes about Spain, which normally doesn't get much notice in historical fiction in English (except as a religious fanatic bad guy with lots of galleons to rob). Love it for the intense descriptions at the beginning of the book and the beautifully imagined personalities of Fernando of Aragon and Christopher Columbus. And hope that next time, the author doesn't take on quite so much material, because I think that is this book's main downfall.