With his latest novel, The Last Queen, critically praised author Christopher W. Gortner fictionally chronicles the life of Queen Juana of Castile (1479-1555), daughter of Isabel of Castile and Fernando of Aragon. The life of Queen Juana of Castile, who was nicknamed, La Loca, is one of the great mysteries of Spanish history, as it was believed she may have been mentally ill, however, throughout the ages this has always been a bone of contention among historians as well as others.
Gortner certainly had his work cut out for him in writing this historical fiction, especially as he mentions in the afterword that the story of Juana of Castile became a legend throughout the ages, and consequently it was difficult to research. Furthermore, much of the existing information concerning Juana is derived from dispatches and eyewitness accounts that were written only from a male perspective. Thus, the challenge here is to present a fictitious work in a way that has a certain authenticity and from a woman's viewpoint. Gortner, who is graced with a fertile imagination and keen writing skills, is very much up to the task, as he carefully conveys a sense of the period through minuscule details about such matters as clothing, food, transportation, and social customs. And what is even more fascinating is that the fictionalized details are almost more compelling than the actual facts which are outlined in the afterword.
In Gortner's interpretation of events, Juana personally recounts her life from the time she was a child until her last days as Queen. We learn about Juana's politically arranged marriage at the age of sixteen to the Archduke Philip of Flanders, also known as Philip the Fair, and the only son of the Hapsburg Emperor. Notwithstanding Juana adamant refusal to marry Philip, the marriage nevertheless proceeds in fulfillment of betrothal documents that were signed between Queen Isabel and Philip's father, Emperor Maximilian I. Juana is informed that her marriage to Philip is vital due to the fact that Spain expended their treasuries on the Moorish crusade and their Cortes refuse to sanction further taxes. Moreover, France is threatening to go to war over Naples and Spain can't afford a war with France. Thus, by marrying Philip, Spain will have security, as it will be allied with the Hapsburgs. France would think twice about going to war with Spain over Naples. Out of duty to Spain, Juana agrees to the marriage.
It was a union filled with lust at first sight! However, as we eventually learn, it was also overflowing with a great deal of intrigue, deception, quarrelling, sadness, betrayal, loneliness, wife abuse, philandering on the part of Philip, hatred and manipulation. From the moment the couple had wed, Philip, following the counsel of his devious and cunning advisers, Besançon and Don Manuel, had ambitions to see the surrender of Castile into Hapsburg hands. He couldn't wait for the day he would be crowned King of Spain. This was particularly in evidence when several members of Juana's family died leaving her as legal heir to the Spanish throne. Yet, despite the cruel treatment Juana had to tolerate at the hands of Philip and his counselors, she was still madly in love with him, although the latter's love for her was for the most part carnal and little more. As she states, "she was a woman alone, his wife, practically his property, to do with as he pleased."
Gortner's novel is divided into four stages of Juana's life, Infanta, Archduchess, Heiress, and Queen, each following the challenges she was constantly called upon to endure in order to save her kingdom from the hands of her ambitious husband. At one point she was even confined to her castle at the bequest of her husband, who believed that she had lost her wits.
Where Gortner brilliantly succeeds is in his ability to create a female character who is, in a sense, a hero with power over the action of the story. He also raises some interesting questions about the real life of this unusual woman. Gortner chooses to offer an alternative view, providing us with insights as to why she may have been believed to be mentally unbalanced. Was she in fact? Gortner spins an entertaining yarn-engaging and enlightening creating a firm hold on the reader. It is an unable-to-put down kind of a book that will keep you up late at night.