Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Last Queen: A Novel by C. W. Gortner

The Last Queen: A Novel by C. W. Gortner. Ballantine Books. July 2008. ISBN #: 9780345501844

Juana of Castile, more commonly known as Juana La Loca, fumes in mid-sixteenth century Spain as she is forced into a betrothal with Philip of Hapsburg. How many political ties of nations were both forged and decimated by the ever-changing vicissitudes of power-hungry monarchs throughout Europe. Outrageous and disgusting, Juana imagines, but she must cooperate with her parents' political plans!

Imagine Juana's surprise at the consuming attraction she feels toward Philip when she first meets him and he meets her. Their initial meeting is so strong that they consummate their unorthodox marriage immediately and only later suffer the formal rite for the people's joyful celebration. So lost is Juana in this glorious, lustful union that she forgets she has been groomed by her parents, Ferdinand and Isabella, to be the proud Queen of Spain.

Little by little, though, we learn that Isabella is the primordial force in ruling Spain and strong, compliant Ferdinand hides an insatiable hunger to rule in his own right. Indeed, Juana's Philip, fatherless from a young age and counseled by a greedy, rapacious cleric, has more in common with Ferdinand than one would ever imagine in the early scenes of this initially romantic story.

Juana carries a secret which occasionally lurks in her daily thoughts. Was her grandmother mad or did she become so after Isabella forced her into seclusion with only basic needs and services provided? Is there a family strain of madness or is this just more of the political machinations driving a constantly threatened monarchy?

By the time Isabella is dying, Philip has matured into a King who will ride the see-saw of politics into what he perceives to be his best shot at expanding his Hapsburg kingdom and protecting it from attack by more powerful kingdoms. The second half of this riveting story is riddled with suspense as the once intense lovers, Philip and Juana, evolve into bitter enemies through a series of planned but stunning moves. Will Philip forge a new treaty of peace with France, Italy or Spain? Watch how Juana appears to compliantly follow her husband but tenaciously plans and implements her own confrontations and loyalties!

Here is where the author truly excels, imagining and presenting a dramatic campaign for power in such a forceful and beguiling manner that the reader is totally unprepared for the conclusion.

C. W. Gortner's physical descriptions of Spain, the Hapsburg empire and the other European lands through which Philip and Juana live and travel are beautiful, even gorgeous, like a lush painting come alive that the reader is privileged to enter. The reader also receives a fine sense of the politics and history of the time which immensely adds to the fascinating plot moving forward to a captivating end!!

The Last Queen: A Novel is a superb, phenomenal read and should be on the top ten fiction bestsellers across the country! Here's to hoping C. W. Gortner will keep writing such masterful, literary historical fiction!!!

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