The Last Queen
This is the story of Juana “the Mad” of Castile, daughter to Isabel and Fernando and sister to Catherine of Aragon. Spanning the period from 1492 to 1509, The Last Queen is a gripping story of passion, intrigue, and betrayal. The novel is narrated by Juana herself, looking back at her past from a span of decades. Gortner’s choice of narrative styles was a good one, for it allows the reader to experience events as Juana experiences them, without knowing who can be trusted. The final betrayal of Juana, shocking to her, is even more shocking to us.
Juana here is not mad, but an isolated, proud, and increasingly desperate woman who is as determined to claim her throne as others are to keep her off it. Her story, which in less skilled hands could have been a dreary, didactic tale of male oppression and female victimization, is saved from being so by Juana’s voice, one that is candid, dry, sharply observant, and totally lacking in self pity.
Gortner avoids falling into “historical novel speak,” rendering his dialogue in modern English peppered with the occasional Spanish phrase. The novel reads quickly, and although the events going on around Juana are complex, Gortner finds a happy middle ground between overwhelming readers with too much background information and bewildering them with too little.
Readers who appreciate author’s notes will find an informative one here, though I would have found it more helpful if Gortner, having told the reader that he took certain liberties with characters, time, and place, was more specific as to what these liberties were. This single quibble aside, this was an exceptionally good read about an intriguing, wronged woman.