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The Last Queen    by C. W. Gortner order for
Last Queen
by C. W. Gortner
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2009 (2008)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In The Last Queen, C. W. Gortner sympathetically imagines what it was like to live the life of Juana la Loca, daughter of Isabel of Castille and Fernando of Aragon, and the last queen of Spain. Though dubbed the Mad, was she really, or was it a slander - a convenient way for the powerful men around her to disinherit her?

We see a spirited Infanta Juana growing up in a nomadic lifestyle during her parents' conquest of Moorish Spain, culminating in their taking Granada, 'the most opulent jewel in the Moors' vanishing world' and site of the legendary Alhambra. At age sixteen, Juana's marriage is arranged to Philip, archduke of Flanders and heir to the Habsburg Empire. Though she is reluctant, her beloved father persuades her to do her duty in securing an alliance that will empower her country against their traditional enemy, France.

Arriving in Flanders, accompanied by an entourage including her ladies and friends Beatriz and Soraya, Juana is initially delighted by her handsome new husband, dubbed Philip the Fair by his people, and is quickly pregnant. But she soon finds serpents in her new Eden, in particular the degree to which her husband is under the influence of his spiritual advisor/father figure, the archbishop of Besancon. Also Philip - who feels like 'a pretty prince in his cage, without power or prestige, playing with toys given to me on loan' - seeks real power through his new wife.

Opportunity arises after 'tragedy had cut a swath' through the Spanish royal family, leaving Juana as heir. Against his wife's wishes, Philip sends the arrogant Besancon to negotiate with her parents, and before long the archduke of Flanders and his wife journey to her homeland through France, where Philip horrifies Juana by forming an alliance with King Louis. The novel continues, with Juana a pawn in games of power, exercising what little influence she has, steadily betrayed by almost everyone she has ever loved, and developing - via emotional outbursts and outright slander - a reputation for madness.

Before her mother dies, Queen Isabel tells her daughter that Spain needs her strength: 'This realm will demand everything you can give, Juana, and much more.' As indeed it does. Juana is ultimately faced with a choice between her country's future and any possibility of hanging on to a shred of happiness for herself - and heeds her mother's words. If you enjoy historical fiction, then The Last Queen is a must read, a story that makes clear how very hard it can be to be born to high estate.

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