Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"The Queen's Vow," by C.W. Gortner

In "The Queen's Vow," author C.W. Gortner fleshes out the dramatic timeline of Castilian monarch Isabella, who consolidated the Spanish cantons under one crown and then opened that nation up to the great unknown beyond its peninsular horizons.

"The Queen's Vow," is told in the first person, Isabella's person. The character fashioned here is of an even temperament, goosed hither and thither by Catholicism, to which she owes her place on the Castilian throne.

The story joins the young infanta's life in her teens. She is not the first in line of royal succession. That's an honor that falls to Isabella's younger brother, Alfonso. Meantime, the Kingdom of Castile is in decline, ruled by her decadent and indecisive half-sibling, Enrique.

Athough this story is one foretold, there's no point in spoiling it for those who don't know the deeper history, which we can assume are legion.

Suffice it to say, all's not well in the kingdom and through untimely death, murder, and palace intrigue, Isabella ends up atop the heap, together with her husband, Fernando, who is a prince out of neighboring Aragon.

The novel tracks her personal development as well as the couple’s progress, the in-house debates on dealing with marauding Portuguese, shifty Moorish infidels, nettlesome grandees, and their grand plans for the fledgling kingdom, to which their marriage has annexed Aragon.

Gortner barely tips his hat to locality when it comes to the prose here. There’s no effort at a language play that captures Spanish speech patters, deepens the native ambience, or gives greater relief to time and place. Isabella talks and thinks like your college English professor, or better.

Of course, some kind of concocted literary voice generates a reader’s task of getting used to, or getting over, what is being proposed.

This way, done straight-up, we can get on with things and Gortner can attribute the most lucid of thoughts and reasons behind Isabella’s actions, without having to shoehorn them into an idiomatic straight-jacket.

History can hamstring an author. One of the liveliest characters at the outset is the infanta’s lady-at-court, Beatriz de Bobadilla. Unfortunately, in real life, Beatriz got married and left Isabella’s side for considerable periods.

In a confection, she’d be there by the Queen’s side, through thick and thin, developing as a person along with the story, which would have benefited. But that’s not what happened and Gortner must tow the historian’s line where Beatriz and others are concerned.

After Isabella and her husband, the strongest characters are those who alternately opposed or supported the young couple’s rise to power. Gortner’s crafting of the lamentable Enrique, the shifty archbishop Carrillo, the evil courtier Villena, and the ascetic inquisitionist Torquemada are his most forceful depictions.

The author appeared to take special pleasure in staging a first meeting between a certain “Genovese navigator,” with a plan to sail off the end of the earth, and the queen. It’s a scene that demonstrates how even cold, hard, battle-tempered rulers can be seduced by one’s confidence, carriage, and ability to flatter.

Gortner composed an “Author’s Afterward” in which he analyzes the queen’s good (ending corruption in Castile, hiring Columbus, opening universities to women) with her bad (ordering the conversion or expulsion of all Jews, a generally martial approach to governance) and attempts to justify the politics of a woman who lived, you know, six centuries ago.

No need.

His text handles, beautifully, the contradictions the queen wrestled with, the weight of being a woman in a very masculine world, the persecution of those who supported and financed her triumphs, and her blind acceptance of Spanish Catholicism’s dictates.

She is a woman who talks often about her clothes, (“my water broke, splashing a torrent over my embroidered red leather slippers“), and wrestles with the infidelities of her warrior husband.

She is human here and, one suspects, the queen herself would be pleased.

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