"Vigorously told deceptions and battle scenes." ~Publishers Weekly review of Eolyn

"The characters are at their best when the events engulfing them are at their worst." ~Publishers Weekly review of High Maga

Friday, October 11, 2013

La Reina Católica

My new favorite novel.
I recently finished C.W. Gortner's wonderful historical fiction novel, The Queen's Vow, based on the life of Isabella of Spain.  After I posted my review on Goodreads, a friend informed me that the Spanish television channel RTVE is currently broadcasting an award-winning series that covers the same period, entitled Isabel.

This couldn't have been more perfect timing.  With all the emotion and drama of the novel still fresh in my mind, I was so ready to see it in action on screen. My husband and I watched the first two episodes of season one last night, and I couldn't be more pleased.  The acting is superb, as is the recreation of the brutal, passionate, and complex culture of 15th century Spain.

The STARZ original series The White Queen comes off as insipid by comparison (despite the fact that I've enjoyed the series, and look forward to watching the final episode this weekend).  As for HBO's rendition of Game of Thrones. . .I'm sorry.  Even with its intrigues and dragons and zombie-beings from the frozen north, Westeros doesn't hold a candle to the real world of 15th century Spain. 

Major players in the RTVE series Isabel.
Why am I so taken by Isabel?

Well, for one I'm a sucker for historical fiction of any sort. Even poorly done historical fiction keeps me happy; well-done historical fiction makes me ecstatic.

Then, there is the extraordinary character of Isabella, as portrayed in both the novel and the series.  After nine episodes of watching Elizabeth Woodville wring her hands and cast spells to ensure her fortune in The White Queen, it is wonderfully refreshing to have the Princess of Asturias take on the dangers of the Spanish court with intelligence, wisdom, and most especially action. 

Must we believe Elizabeth Woodville's success was
only a matter of beauty, love, and a touch of magic?
Gortner's rendition of Isabella's life appeals for all the same reasons.  In his novel, he gives us a queen whose world does not revolve around the love of her king (though by most accounts, Isabella did love her Ferdinand); a woman whose powers extend far beyond looking longingly out the window as her husband goes to war. 

Isabella does not sit by idly while others defend her will and prepare to fight her battles. She is the key player in forging the alliances and securing the conditions that made possible the victorious campaign to unify Spain. 

Not that Isabella's record is spotless.  There is the small matter of the Spanish Inquisition, and the continuing controversy as to whether her sponsorship of Columbus' quest was, in the end, a good thing or a bad. 

But whether or not you admire all the faces of Isabella, to see her portrayed as a real woman -- forthright, determined, taking command of her own fate despite the odds -- feels like a unique and special event.

Why is it so difficult for us to bring the remarkable women of history to life on screen? 

Young and capable, Isabella of Castile understands
what it will take to secure her throne.
I suspect Elizabeth Woodville had her own cunning, as well as a real capacity to contribute to the security of her husband's reign, in ways The White Queen refuses to acknowledge. Instead, the series chooses to focus on her great beauty as the reason for her rise to power, and resorts to magic as an explanation for her ability to remain on the throne.

Isabella of Castile was beautiful, too. And while she did not practice magic, she had absolute confidence in the power of her prayers and her faith.

Yet beauty and prayers were not what won Isabella the throne; nor did she ever seek to rely solely on these gifts. What secured the crown of Castile was young Isabella's ingenuity and her capacity to take action in key moments that transformed her people's history.

Isabella is not the only woman in history to claim such gifts. There have been extraordinary women like her throughout the centuries.

Maybe some day having their stories rendered in novels and on TV in the way that Gortner and RTVE reconstructed the life of Isabella will, while never ceasing to be delightful, at least feel somewhat less unique.