Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: The Last Queen

Summary: Juana of Castile, the last queen of Spanish blood to inherit her country’s throne, has been for centuries an enigmatic figure shrouded in lurid myth. Was she the bereft widow of legend who was driven mad by her loss, or has history misjudged a woman who was ahead of her time? In his stunning new novel, C. W. Gortner challenges the myths about Queen Juana, unraveling the mystery surrounding her to reveal a brave, determined woman we can only now begin to fully understand.

The third child of Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand of Spain, Juana is born amid her parents’ ruthless struggle to unify their kingdom, bearing witness to the fall of Granada and Columbus’s discoveries. At the age of sixteen, she is sent to wed Philip, the archduke of Flanders, as part of her parents’ strategy to strengthen Spain, just as her youngest sister, Catherine of Aragon, is sent to England to become the first wife of Henry VIII.

Juana finds unexpected love and passion with her handsome young husband, the sole heir to the Habsburg Empire. At first she is content with her children and her life in Flanders. But when tragedy strikes and she inherits the Spanish throne, Juana finds herself plunged into a battle for power against her husband that grows to involve the major monarchs of Europe. Besieged by foes on all sides, her intelligence and pride used as weapons against her, Juana vows to secure her crown and save Spain from ruin, even if it could cost her everything.

With brilliant, lyrical prose, novelist and historian C. W. Gortner conjures Juana through her own words, taking the reader from the somber majesty of Spain to the glittering and lethal courts of Flanders, France, and Tudor England. The Last Queen brings to life all the grandeur and drama of an incomparable era, and the singular humanity of this courageous, passionate princess whose fight to claim her birthright captivated the world. -- Ballantine

Where do I even start with THE LAST QUEEN by C.W. Gortner? How about this -- I LOVED THIS BOOK! I might even go so far as to say that it's one of the best historical fiction books that I've ever read.

Before picking up THE LAST QUEEN, I knew nothing about the life of Queen Juana. In fact, I had not ever heard of her or her story -- I actually knew more about her sister, Catherine of Aragon. However once I read the book description, I thought she sounded terribly interesting. Here was a woman who eventually ruled Spain, but not before she had to battle her husband and then her father. And then she only ruled for a few years (1506-1509) before she was thrown into prison because she was considered insane -- thus the nickname Juana the Mad.

Of course, the facts of Juana's life are fascinating by themselves. What occurred at the courts of Europe are better than any soap opera for drama and intrigue. In fact, I probably would have enjoyed a biography of Juana of Castile very much. However, Mr. Gortner took Juana's story to an entirely new level when he added the fictional elements. Instead of portraying Juana as an insane, out-of-control woman, he showed the reader an entirely different side of her. Mr. Gortner made Juana an extremely intelligent, compassionate woman and a very loving mother.

The way Mr. Gortner told Juana's story made the reader actually like Juana and even feel a great deal of compassion towards her. By writing the book from Juana's point of view, he allowed the reader to actually get inside her (not-so-crazy) mind and better understand her and her actions. It also allowed us to feel her pain each time she was betrayed by her loved ones. I thought it was wonderful how he portrayed Juana as such a strong, loyal woman who would do anything for her country and her children.

It is apparent that Mr. Gortner did a tremendous amount of research on Juana while writing this book -- it actually took him 5 years to write. However, I think what impresses me even more is how he told this story. Not only is it well- researched and beautifully written, but it is full of wonderful characters who provide lots of intrigue and excitement. I especially love how he wove together the facts of Juana's life with his creative interpretation of her actions.

If you would like to learn a little more about Mr. Gortner and THE LAST QUEEN, you should check out this very interesting interview with the author. In addition, there is a wonderful section on Mr. Gortner's website that gives some insight into Juana's world. He also has a terrific blog Historical Boys: Historical Fiction for Men and Women that I now follow. I have learned about many new historical fiction books based on his posts.

I definitely recommend THE LAST QUEEN for a future book club pick. I can't imagine that anyone in my book club wouldn't love this book. There's a little something for everyone in the pages of this book -- murder, sex, intrigue, love, betrayal, lies, deceit, etc. The list can go on and on. I wasn't able to find discussion questions, but don't let that stop you. There are just loads of things to talk about in this book. And, Mr. Gortner makes himself available for visits if you're in the San Francisco area or phone chats. I think reading THE LAST QUEEN and discussing it with the author would make for a very memorable book club meeting!

After reading this book, I consider myself a huge fan of Mr. Gortner's. I desperately want to read his first novel THE SECRET LION -- it's about the Tudor Court. And I'm very excited that Mr. Gortner is currently working on his next novel about Catherine de Medici. I can't wait!

Note: Mr. Gortner shared that the discussion questions are available here. (I don't know how I missed them!)


Tammy said...

Thanks for the great review. I will definately be picking this one up - I love historical fiction.

Feener said...

thanks for the tip.....sounds good, i really enjoy historical fiction as well.

Lezlie said...

I really liked this one, too. I'm glad you felt the same!


Heather J. said...

Yeah! I've been wanting to read this one, and your ringing endorsement makes me want to read it NOW. ~LOL~ I've heard about Juana the Mad for many years and I know a bit about her life, so it will be quite interesting to see things from "her" point of view now. Thanks for the great review.

Oh, and THANK YOU for mentioning his historical fiction blog - I'm so excited to go check it out!

S. Krishna said...

Great review! I'm glad you liked it so much because I have to review it sometime soon!

softdrink said...

I've come to the conclusion that I need to quit my job. Otherwise, I'm never gonna make it through all these great books I keep reading about. ;-)

LisaMM said...

Wasn't this a great book??? I loved it too. Your review is wonderful, as always.

Amy said...

I loved this one, too. It drove me crazy b/c my review was due the last day of BBAW, and I just wanted to curl up and read it.:)

C.W. Gortner said...

Thank you so much to Booking Mama for hosting me on my virtual book tour and for this amazing review. I've been delighted and truly humbled by all the enthusiasm and support THE LAST QUEEN has received from readers. It's been a tremendous experience for me!

I wanted to add that book groups can download discussion questions here:

Look inside the box offering free bookmarks and there's a PDF download. I'm always delighted to chat with book groups, so please feel free to contact me.

I'll be stopping by again to answer any questions or comments you might have, and thank you so much. With my warm regards, C.W.

Julie said...

I'm so into Philippa Gregory's books right now and read about Juana in The Constant Princess. So I'm definitely intrigued to read this book. I put it on my TBR list.

Michele said...

Oh, Julie! I know that I usually love your recommendations but am not sure about this one. I am not into historical fiction usually and have been hesitant to pick this one up. But since you loved it....that makes me reconsider it. And since you said it was book club worthy...even more! I think I'll add it to my book club idea blog and let me my book club choose it if they want. Then I am not responsible. :-)