The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner is the fascinating story of Juana, daughter of Queen Isabel and King Consort Fernando of Spain (if you remember your American history, they were the rulers who sponsored Christopher Columbus’ search for the new world). Juana was the last queen of Spanish blood to inherit the throne.
There’s tons of royal drama here. Young Juana worshiped her father, respected her mother, the icy Queen Isabel, and had a fierce loyalty to her beloved Spain. An arranged marriage was made to strengthen her parents’ political alliances. She left Spain at sixteen to meet Archduke Phillip “the Fair” of Flanders, her betrothed yet a stranger.
Phillip and Juana are so immediately taken with each other that they demand to be wed on the spot rather than wait, to the shock and disdain of her women, advisors, and escorts. Their first few years together were passionate, but then it all quickly went to hell when Juana’s brother, sister, and nephew all die, making her the heir apparent to the Spanish crown.
Suddenly Juana finds herself in danger. She is a pawn who can trust no one except the loyal women who attend her. Queen Isabel is in crisis mode- she detests Phillip and does not want him to rule Spain. In secret she gets Juana’s assurance that she will do whatever it takes to inherit the throne, paving the way for her as best she can before her death.
Phillip and his advisors have other plans. Full of political aspirations, they use Juana’s fiery personality against her and begin whispering about her mental health. Emotional with a jealous temper, the unconventional princesa didn’t always conform, which made the insanity talk more plausible.
Her husband, constantly strategizing and manipulating Juana, cruelly imprisoned her, beat her, humiliated her, lied to her, cheated on her, impregnated her for a 6th time through marital rape, and made every effort to destroy her. If that’s not enough to make a girl MAD, I don’t know what is! But was she insane? Historians speculate that she was schizophrenic, driven to madness by grief over the loss of her husband (and there is in fact evidence of mental health problems in her family tree), but Gortner brilliantly casts doubt and challenges that theory.
C.W, Gortner has written a stunning piece of historical fiction in The Last Queen. Full of historical detail, danger, suspense, betrayal, and complex twists and turns, it is a captivating read. Juana is colorful, courageous, and absolutely certain of her destiny. Throughout her struggles I was rooting for her to prevail.
Unfortunately, Queen Juana la Loca, aka Juana the Mad, ruled Spain from 1506-1509 after her mother’s death, but was then imprisoned for insanity for the rest of her life, in part because of her refusal to abdicate the thrown to her father. This refusal, however, ensured that her children would later inherit the thrown, shaping history for generations to come.
I didn’t know anything about the forgotten Queen Juana prior to reading this book- the extent of my knowledge about the 16th century royals was limited to a couple episodes of The Tudors on Showtime and the Philippa Gregory novel, The Other Boleyn Girl (Juana’s sister Catalina was Henry VIII’s wife, Catherine of Aragon). I was entranced by Juana and this extraordinary book and would highly recommend it.
about the author
C. W. Gortner, half-Spanish by birth, holds an M.F.A. in writing, with an emphasis on historical studies, from the New College of California and has taught university courses on women of power in the Renaissance. He was raised in Málaga, Spain, and now lives in California.
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