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Monday, September 22, 2008

The Last Queen Takes a Dark Look at Happily Ever After

Long before Disney began marketing the heck out of Happily Ever After, little girls dreamed of becoming princesses. They envisioned themselves in flowing gowns and diamond tiaras with armies of servants at their beck and call. With a gleaming palace, trunks of jewels and a handsome prince, what's not to love? Well, after the reading and viewing I've been doing lately, let me tell you, I'll pass.

Last week, I read The Goose Girl, a story about a scheming lady-in-waiting. Then, I watched The Queen, which recounts the days after Princess Diana's death. Now, I've finished C.W. Gortner's The Last Queen, and I'm convinced - life as a commoner is the way to go. The royals can keep their scandals, plots and endless jockeying for the crown's power. Sure, it's fascinating to read about in books, but that's the closest I want to get!

The Last Queen makes royal life look anything but appealing. The book tells the story of Juana of Castile, the final queen of Spanish blood to inherit the throne. Groomed from infancy to decorate the arm of a king, Juana is disappointed, but not surprised when her parents use her betrothal as a political strategem to build their empire. For her beloved Spain, she accepts the proposal of Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy. Despite her trepidation at marrying a stranger, she finds her 17-year-old husband irresistible. Theirs proves a passionate, happy union. At least for a time. By the time Juana realizes how truly ambitious her Philip is, it is almost too late. Although Juana's heart bleeds for her native land, her husband sees it only as the answer to his desire for a crown. Getting himself on the throne becomes his prime objective. While Juana enjoys her stately life in Flanders, gives birth and rears her babies, she remains oblivious to Philip's plans of overthrowing her parents and claiming Spain for his own. When she discovers the plot, Juana finds herself in a power struggle between the people she loves the most - her parents and her husband. At stake is much, much more than her own royal birthright.

The more Juana uncovers Philip's deceptions, the more she comes to despise her handsome spouse. Not only has he betrayed her politically, but she also finds evidence of repeated infidelities. When she confronts him, he locks her in her palace, beats her and accuses her of madness. Her only hope is to escape to Spain, where her parents' supporters will shelter her from her husband's all-consuming ambition. By the time she makes her way home, she has sacrificed everything - her once loving marriage, her children, her freedom, her future - to save her country. Even in Spain, where she should be revered as queen, Juana finds herself fighting for her own survival. Powerless against those who would usurp her, she must battle even her most trusted friends to stand up for what is rightfully hers. Paranoia and betrayal stalk her every hour, until she fears she has become just as mad as her husband accuses her of being. Like her mother before her, she will stop at nothing to protect her kingdom. The cost, however, will be dearer than she ever imagined.

Obviously, this is much darker fare than The Goose Girl, but the story is just as, if not more, intriguing. Generously seasoned with period detail, The Last Queen makes 15th and 16th Century Europe come alive for the reader. C.W. Gortner's lush, but dense, prose may turn off some readers, but the story moves right along with plenty of secret plans, betrayals, and evil doings to keep the plot interesting. Gortner's most brilliant device, however, is Juana herself. He creates a woman who demands as much admiration as sympathy. Although she spent much of her life as a pawn in others' political games, Gortner's Juana emerges as a passionate, brave woman who would sell her own soul to save the land she loved. Was she strong enough, finally, to rule Spain? Does it matter? Readers will root for Juana la Loca, despite her ignominious end. Gortner makes this colorful character leap straight out of the history books and into the reader's heart. You won't soon forget Spain's last queen.

Grade: A-

(Book image from C.W. Gortner's official website.)


  1. Great review! I loved this book, too.

  2. I'm with you. I always found studying history to be a great pastime and I never had the slightest desire to live in another era (without modern sanitation!) or to be a ruler (everyone plotting against you!).

    Sounds like an interesting read. I've been studying this era of Spanish history recently. Very fascinating!


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