Gortner’s most impressive work to date is The Last Queen, a novel of Juana de Loca, daughter of Isabella of Castile and Fernando of Aragon. His thorough examination of Isabella’s life casts more light on Juana’s eventual fate and adds perspective to the political landscape of the era. As a blood heir to the throne of Castile, Isabella flees court with younger brother Alphonse soon after her father’s death, half-brother Enrique is crowned as the new king. Lending credence to fears for the safety of the heirs, Isabella’s mother flees with her children, becoming more and more reclusive as the years pass, showing early signs of the mental illness that later will tragically impact her granddaughter.
From the start, Isabella is loyal and constant, not given to self-pity, solicitous of the welfare of her younger brother. An unexpected invitation to Enrique’s court ushers in a harrowing few years when Isabella and Alphonse are subject to the political machinations of a dissolute king and his faithless wife, who has given birth to a daughter (whom most in the court believe to have been fathered by another). When that daughter is christened as heir, Isabella and Alphonse are in imminent danger.
Alphonse is spirited away in the dead of night by those who would circumvent an assassin, Isabella is left to use her wits at court, avoiding the schemes of adversaries, the first foray of open hostility a bold attempt to wed her to an insignificant husband. A resistant Isabella is caught in an impossible struggle to avoid her half-brother’s disfavor; Enrique’s slide into dissolution is unmistakable, a weak and ambivalent man easily influenced. Eventually Isabella realizes the wisdom of secretly negotiating a marriage with Ferdinand of Aragon, a union that will unite the two kingdoms. Easier said than done—the marriage drags on and on, with Isabella often in real jeopardy.
Once Enrique has died, Isabella is declared heir and crowned (Alphonse expires prematurely, a crushing loss for his sister). In spite of her title, Isabella is under constant threat from rebellious nobles backing Enrique’s illegitimate daughter, until the girl is finally removed from a position to foment rebellion. While marriage to Fernando brings the young queen everything she wants, she faces a chronic problem: shared power with her husband, the demands of ruling Castile sometimes in conflict with those of a dutiful wife. Between giving birth to five children (only one a male) and adjudicating Castile’s conflicts, Isabella and Fernando engage in a costly crusade against the Moors after a devastating military loss. Fernando lays siege to Granada, Isabella pawning her jewels to Jewish lenders to finance the war. Meanwhile, fanatical ascetic Fra Tomas de Torquemada, with the queen’s approval, institutes a rigorous inquisition against heretics: the beginning of the infamous Spanish Inquisition.
Triumphing at last against the Moors at Granada and instrumental in the discoveries in the new World by Master Cristobal Colon, Isabella’s legacy is memorable but remains shadowed by the horrors of the Inquisition. While Fernando is a critical element in the evolution of this queen on the world stage, Isabella is the focus of Gortner’s novel, jockeying the demands of powerful factions with her vision for Castile. The premature death of Alphonse thrusts Isabella into a lonely role in her long battle to outwit her enemies in Enrique’s court and those who would sway her to do their bidding—including Fernando. Mother of Catalina, who wed Arthur Tudor, then Henry, Isabella’s roots have spread through Christian European history. Unfortunately, so have the outrages of the Inquisition.