Click here to read reviewer Karyn Johnson's take on The Last Queen.
“Juana La Loca” is the daughter of Isabel and Fernando, who rule their subjects with an iron fist, retrieving Spain from the Moors after centuries of struggle. Juana is plagued by her heritage, her grandmother declared insane and kept behind locked doors for the duration of her life while Isabel controls the throne.
Wed to Philip of Flanders, Juana, young and impressionable, is seduced by his charm, spending the early years of her marriage in thrall to her husband. Learning that affairs of state are driven by expedience, Juana is soon trapped between her mother’s political plans and Philip’s ambitions, the Archduke driven by personal demons.
Predictably, Juana is betrayed by her husband, his infidelity driving a wedge between them. Devastated by Philip’s casual affairs, Juana is brought back to earth by the harsh realities of her existence, her wifely advice restricted by the overweening influence of Philip’s advisors. After a series of family deaths, the Spanish throne is suddenly thrust upon Juana, with Philip as her royal consort.
Her position made even more precarious by the threat of madness that hangs over the family, Juana is terrified that she will suffer the fate of her grandmother should she seek to circumvent her mother’s plans or Philip’s equally Machiavellian machinations.
Attempting a balance between her mother and her husband’s desires, Juana is increasingly in jeopardy from both, thanks to Philip’s alliance with France and Isabel’s plans for the throne. Philip grows increasingly hostile to his wife and in-laws, determined to rule Spain himself. To that end, he schemes behind their backs, his wife his unwitting pawn. Betrayed on all sides, Juana is finally the victim of powerful men who literally lock her away from the throne: “You may think me mad. But I am still the Infanta of Castile and the heiress of this realm.”
Gortner’s dramatic novel gives weight to the argument that the title “Juana La Loca” is a convenient label for a much-maligned woman ill-prepared to stem the tide of history. In the end, it is impossible to tell whether Juana is truly mad or driven to distraction by those who would twist her future into their ends.
Written with a fine sensibility for the period, The Last Queen reaches beyond sensationalism, a view of history from the perspective of a female heir to the throne in a patriarchal society too long chafed by Isabel’s rule and determined to thwart Juana’s. Albeit fiction, this is a fascinating foray into that dark world of 15th-century politics and one woman’s youthful passion, disillusion, and reckoning with a terrible fate.