Infanta Isabella of Castile and Leon is that priceless jewel in a failing country, a skilled leader, but when she is young, no one has a chance to find out. She is exiled from court by her impotent half-brother the king, nearly married off to a much older, unappealing man, and even thrust in a dungeon to prevent her from gaining visibility. Only when Isabella is officially named heir to the throne does she begin to take power for herself, starting with her choice of husband. Ferdinand, heir to Aragon and king of Sicily, is not only handsome but her path towards the unification of Spain. Together, Ferdinand and Isabella pursue this course, bringing Spain to the forefront of power in Europe in one short reign.
I’m going to start off by saying that since this is a reissue of an older historical novel, the history is outdated. Knowing that, I managed to not get annoyed when an envoy from Richard, duke of Gloucester (with a withered arm, no less!) appeared offering his hand in marriage to Isabella, suggesting that he would be king someday. At the time Richard would also have been a teenager and hardly convinced of his place in the English royal succession, much less in a position to negotiate his own marriages. Sorry, I nitpick. To contrast with a positive example, I was just thrilled when Schoonover mentioned that fifteenth-century people knew the world was round.
The novel also reflects certain 1950s values which I found alternately charming and strange in a historical novel. Isabella is clearly a mighty monarch. She is clever and at times ruthless. She also, however, has a strange predilection for weeping and acknowledging that her husband needs to do manly things away from her occasionally, like lead armies, and she arranges little tasks behind his back so that he’ll feel useful, like a man should. I felt almost as though Isabella had to be a housewife AND a queen to satisfy everyone’s ideal. Ferdinand is constantly upset when she does something without him or has power that he does not share. Maybe I’m reading too much into that – after all, how many kings really want their queens to be more powerful than them? – but it stuck out a little to me.
All that said, this novel had a wonderful sort of charm that I wouldn’t discount at all. It feels old-fashioned, but in a lovely sit in an armchair and get absorbed in an enthralling story feel. Everything has a slightly magical, ethereal edge to it. This is a land long ago past and there is a tinge of nostalgia throughout the entire book that is eminently compelling. Despite Isabella’s fluctuation between dominant and submissive, I really liked her and particularly her friend, Beatriz. I liked this book. It reminded me of the books I used to read when I was a kid, before I particularly cared who was who in the historical world. It’s like a visit to my grandma’s house. Everything there is familiar and comfortable but has a bit of an aged feel to it. There is no computer, no DVD player, but a set of wedding china and pictures from when my parents were younger than I am now. That is how this book feels.
In that sense, I would probably recommend it! It was clearly fairly popular in its day, and while it does feel aged, it still has a lovely story to tell. Maybe all the dots don’t add up anymore, but they still make a picture worth looking at.
Buy Queen’s Cross on Amazon.