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  • Written by C. W. Gortner
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A Novel

Written by C. W. GortnerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by C.  W. Gortner


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: July 29, 2008
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-345-50741-9
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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In this stunning novel, C. W. Gortner brings to life Juana of Castile, the third child of Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand of Spain, who would become the last queen of Spanish blood to inherit her country’s throne. Along the way, Gortner takes the reader from the somber majesty of Spain to the glittering and lethal courts of Flanders, France, and Tudor England.

Born amid her parents’ ruthless struggle to unify and strengthen their kingdom, Juana, at the age of sixteen, is sent to wed Philip, heir to the Habsburg Empire. Juana finds unexpected love and passion with her dashing young husband, and at first she is content with her children and her married life. But when tragedy strikes and she becomes heir to the Spanish throne, Juana finds herself plunged into a battle for power against her husband that grows to involve the major monarchs of Europe. Besieged by foes on all sides, Juana vows to secure her crown and save Spain from ruin, even if it costs her everything.


I was thirteen years old when my parents conquered Granada. It was 1492, the year of miracles, when three hundred years of Moorish supremacy fell to the might of our armies, and the fractured kingdoms of Spain were united at last.

I had been on crusade since my birth. Indeed, I’d often been told of how the pangs had overcome my mother as she prepared to join my father on siege, forcing her to take to her childbed in Toledo–an unseemly interruption she did not relish, for within hours she had entrusted me to a nursemaid and resumed her battles. Together with my brother, Juan, and my three sisters, I had always known the chaos of a peripatetic court, which shifted according to the demands of the Reconquest, the crusade against the Moors. I slept and awoke to the deafening clamor of thousands of souls in armor; to beasts of burden dragging catapults, siege towers, and primitive cannon; to endless carts piled with clothing, furnishings, supplies, and utensils. Rarely had I enjoyed the feel of marble underfoot or eaves overhead. Life consisted of a series of pavilions staked on stony ground, of anxious tutors gabbling lessons and cringing as flaming arrows whooshed overhead and crashing boulders decimated a stronghold in the distance.

The conquest of Granada changed everything–for me and for Spain. That coveted mountain citadel was the most opulent jewel in the Moors’ vanishing world; and my parents, Isabel and Fernando, their Catholic Majesties of Castile and Aragón, vowed to reduce it to rubble rather than suffer the heretics’ continuing defiance.

I can still see it as if I were standing at the pavilion entrance: the lines of soldiers flanking the road, winter sunlight sparking off their battered breastplates and lances. They stood as if they had never known hardship, gaunt faces lifted, forgetting in that moment the countless privations and countless dead of these ten long years of battle.

A thrill ran through me. From the safety of the hilltop where our tents were, I had watched Granada fall. I followed the trajectory of the tar-soaked, flaming stones hurled into the city walls and beheld the digging of trenches filled with poisonous water so no one could breach them. Sometimes, when the wind blew just right, I even heard the moans of the wounded and the dying. At night while the city smoldered, an eerie interplay of shadow and light shivered across the pavilion’s cloth walls; and we awoke every morning to find cinder dust on our faces, our pillows, our plates–everything we ate or touched.

I could scarcely believe it was over. Turning back inside, I saw with a scowl that my sisters still struggled with their raiment. I had been the first to wake and don the new scarlet brocades my mother had ordered for us. I stood tapping my feet, as our duenna, Doña Ana, shook out the opaque silk veils we always had to wear in public.

“A curse on this dust,” she said. “It has seeped even into the linen. Oh, but I cannot wait for the hour when this war is at an end.”

I laughed. “That hour has come! Today, Boabdil surrenders the keys to the city. Mamá already awaits us in the field and–” I paused. “By the saints, Isabella, surely you don’t plan to wear mourning today of all days?”

From under her black coif, my elder sister’s blue eyes flared. “What do you, a mere child, know of my grief? To lose a husband is the worst tragedy a woman can endure. I will never stop mourning my beloved Alfonso.”

Isabella had a flare for the dramatic, and I refused to let her get away with it. “You were married less than six months to your beloved prince before he fell off his horse and broke his neck. You only say that because Mamá has mentioned betrothing you to his cousin–if you ever stop acting the bereaved widow, that is.”

Prim Maria, a year younger than I and possessed of a humorless maturity, interposed herself. “Juana, please. You must show Isabella respect.”

I gave a toss of my head. “Let her first show respect for Spain. What will Boabdil think when he sees an infanta of Castile dressed like a crow?”

Doña Ana snapped, “Boabdil is a heretic. His opinion is of no account.” She thrust a veil into my hands. “Cease your chatter and go help Catalina.”

Sour as curdled cheese our duenna was, though I suppose I should have spared a thought for the trials the crusade had wrought on her aged bones. I went to my youngest sister, Catalina. Like Isabella, our brother, Juan, and, to some extent, Maria, Catalina resembled our mother: plump and short, with beautiful pale skin and fair hair, and eyes the color of the sea.

“You look lovely,” I told her, tucking the scalloped veil about her face. Little Catalina whispered in return, “So do you. Eres la más bonita.

I smiled. Catalina was eight. She had yet to master the art of the compliment. She couldn’t have known her words eased my awareness that I was unique among my siblings. I had inherited my looks from my father’s side of the family, down to the slight cast in one of my amber eyes and unfashionable olive complexion. I was also the tallest of my sisters, and the only one with a mass of curling coppery hair.

“No, you’re the prettiest,” I said, and I kissed Catalina’s cheek, taking her hand in mine as the distant blast of trumpets sounded.

Doña Ana motioned. “Quick! Her Majesty waits.”

Together, we went to a wide charred field, where a canopied dais had been erected.

My mother stood clad in her high-necked mauve robe, a diadem encircling her caul. As always in her presence, I found myself bending my knees slightly to conceal my budding height.

“Ah.” She waved a ringed hand. “Come. Isabella and Juana, you stand to my right, Maria and Catalina to my left. You are late. I was beginning to worry.”

“Forgive us, Your Majesty,” said Doña Ana, with a deep reverence. “There was dust in the coffers. I had to air their Highnesses’ gowns and veils.”

My mother surveyed us. “They look splendid.” A frown creased her brow. “Isabella, hija mia, black again?” She shifted her regard to me. “Juana, stand up straight.”

As I did her bidding, another trumpet blast reached us, much closer now. My mother ascended the dais to her throne. The cavalcade of grandes, the high lords and nobles of Spain, materialized on the road in a fluttering of standards. I wanted to shout in excitement. My father rode at their head, his black doublet and signature red cape accentuating his broad shoulders. His Andalucian destrier pranced beneath him, caparisoned in Aragón’s scarlet and gold colors. Behind him rode my brother, Juan, his white-gold hair tousled about his flushed, thin face.

Their appearance elicited spontaneous cheers from the soldiers. “Viva el infante,” cried the men, beating swords against shields. “Viva el rey!”

The solemn churchmen followed. Not until they reached the field did I catch sight of the prisoner in their midst. The men drew back. My father motioned, and the man on the donkey was made to dismount and forced forward, to raucous laughter. He stumbled.

My breath caught in my throat. His feet were bare, bloodied, but I marked his inherent regality as he unwound his soiled turban and cast it aside, revealing dark hair that tumbled to his shoulders. He was not what I expected, not the heretic caliph who’d haunted our dreams, whose hordes had poured boiling pitch and shot fiery arrows from Granada’s ramparts against our army. He was tall and lean, with bronze skin. He might have been a Castilian lord as he crossed the field to where my mother waited, his steps measured, as if he crossed an audience hall clad in finery. When he fell to his knees before her throne, I caught a glimpse of his weary emerald eyes.

Boabdil lowered his head. From his neck, he removed an iron key on a gold chain and set it at my mother’s feet, a symbolic symbol of defeat.

Jeering applause and insults came from the ranks. With an impassive countenance that conveyed both his inviolate disdain and infinite despair, Boabdil allowed the applause to fade before he lifted his practiced plea for tolerance. When he finished, he waited, as did everyone present, all eyes fixed on the queen.

My mother stood. Despite her short stature, slackened skin, and permanently shadowed eyes, her voice carried across the field, imbued with the authority of the ruler of Castile.

“I have heard this plea and accept the Moor’s submission with humble grace. I’ve no desire to inflict further suffering on him or his people. They’ve fought bravely, and in reward I offer all those who convert to the True Faith baptism and acceptance into our Holy Church. Those who do not will be granted safe passage to Africa–providing they never return to Spain again.”

My heart missed a beat when I saw Boabdil flinch. In that instant, I understood. This was worse than a death sentence. He’d surrendered Granada, thus bringing an end to centuries of Moorish dominion in Spain. He had failed to defend his citadel and now craved an honorable death. Instead, he was to be vanquished, to bear humiliation and exile till the end of his days.

I looked at my mother, marked the satisfaction in the hard set of her lips. She knew. She had planned this. By granting mercy when he least expected it, she had destroyed the Moor’s soul.
His face ashen, Boabdil came to his feet. Burned earth clung to his knees.

The lords closed in around him, leading him away. I averted my eyes. I knew that if he’d been victorious he would not have hesitated to order the deaths of my father and my brother, of every noble and soldier on this field. He’d have enslaved my sisters and me, defamed and executed my mother. He and his kind had defiled Spain for too long. At last, our country was united under one throne, one church, one God. I should rejoice in his subjugation.

Yet what I most wanted to do was console him.

We entered granada in resplendent procession, the battered crucifix sent by His Holiness to consecrate heretic mosques carried aloft before us, followed by the nobility and clergy.

Discordant wailing sundered the air. The Jewish warehouses were being impounded. Gorged with fragrant spices, yards of silk and velvet, and crates of medicinal herbs, the market represented Granada’s true wealth, and my mother had ordered the wares secured against looting. Later, she would have them inventoried, tallied, and sold to replenish Castile’s treasury.

Riding with my sisters and our ladies, I gazed in disbelief upon the ravaged city. Shattered buildings stood empty, seared by flame. Our catapults had leveled entire walls, and the stench of rotting flesh wafted from the mounds of broken stone. I saw an emaciated child standing motionless beside some dead rotting animal bound to a spit; as we passed, gaunt women knelt in the ruins. I met their impenetrable stares. I saw no hatred or fear, no remorse, as if the very life had been drained from them.

Then we started to ascend the road to the Alhambra–that legendary palace built by the Moors in their flush of glory. I couldn’t resist rising in my saddle to peer through the gusts of dust kicked up by the horses, hoping to be the first to see its fabled walls.

Someone cried out.

Around me the women pulled their mounts to a halt. I looked about in bewilderment before returning my gaze to the road ahead.

I froze.

A high tower thrust into the sky like a mirage. On its parapet I could see a tiny group of figures, the wind snatching at their veils and flimsy wraps, light sparkling on the metallic threads woven through their gowns.

Behind me Doña Ana hissed, “Quick, cover the child’s face. She must not see this.”

I swiveled in my saddle to look at Catalina. My sister’s eyes met mine in fearful confusion before one of the ladies pulled the veil over her face. I clenched at my reins, turning back around. A cry of warning hurtled up my throat as I saw, in paralyzing horror, the figures seeming to step out over the parapet, like birds about to take flight.

Around me, the ladies gasped in unison. The figures floated for an impossible moment in the air, weightless, shedding veils. Then they plummeted downward like stones.

I closed my eyes. I willed myself to breathe.

“See?” chortled Doña Ana. “Boabdil’s harem. They refused to leave the palace. Now we know why. Those heathen whores will burn in hell for all eternity.”

All eternity.

The words echoed in my head, a terrible punishment I could not imagine. Why had they done it? How could they have done it? I kept seeing those fragile forms in the pinpricked darkness behind my eyelids, and as we rode under the Alhambra’s gateway, I did not point and laugh with the other women at the broken bodies strewn on the rocks below.

My parents, Juan, and Isabella swept ahead with the nobility. Maria, Catalina, and I remained behind with our women. Taking Catalina by the hand and hushing her anxious questions, for she knew something terrible had happened, I gazed at the citadel. With the afternoon light turning to vermilion on its tiled facade, it appeared blood-soaked, a place of death and destruction. And still I was overwhelmed by its exotic splendor.

The Alhambra was unlike any palace I’d ever seen. In Castile, royal residences doubled as fortresses, encircled by moats and enclosed by thick walls. The Moorish palace had the mountain gorge for protection, and so it sprawled like a lion on its plateau, sheltered by cypress and pine.
Doña Ana motioned to Maria; together with our ladies-in-waiting, we marched into the audience hall. With Catalina’s hand still clutching mine, I took in everything at once, my heart beating fast as I began to see just how magnificent the Moor’s world was.

An immense space of saffron and pearl opened before me. There were no scarred doors, no suffocating staircases or cramped passageways. Instead, carved archways welcomed me into rooms where honeycomb walls curved, and secret mosaic terraces could be glimpsed. Glazed porcelain vases held vigil under smoke-darkened hangings of every imaginable hue; quilted pillows and divans were strewn about as if their occupants had just retired. I looked down at my feet to a scarf coiled on the tiled floor. I feared to touch it, thinking it might have been dropped by one of the concubines on her doomed race to the tower.

I had dwelled in ignorance. No one had told me the heretic could create something so beautiful. I gazed up to an inverted cupola. About its perimeter, the painted faces of dead caliphs stared at me with laconic reproach. I swayed where I stood, overcome. I now understood why the concubines had chosen death. Like Boabdil, they could not bear to live without this Eden that had been their home.

The scent of musk crept past me. I heard water everywhere, a constant murmur as it flowed through rivulets carved in the marble floors, emptying into alabaster pools, set to dance in the patio fountains.

I paused. A sigh shifted through the pilasters, stirring the hair of my nape. Catalina whispered, “Hermana, what is it? What do you hear?”

I shook my head. I could not explain.

Who would have believed me if I said I could hear the Moor’s lament?

From the Hardcover edition.
C. W. Gortner|Author Q&A

About C. W. Gortner

C.  W. Gortner - The Last Queen

Photo © Stephanie Mohan

C. W. Gortner, half-Spanish by birth, holds an M.F.A. in writing, with an emphasis on historical studies, from the New College of California and has taught university courses on women of power in the Renaissance. He was raised in Málaga, Spain, and now lives in California.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with C.W. Gortner

Random House Reader’s Circle: How did the idea for The Last Queen originate?

 C.W. Gortner: I’m often asked how I became interested in Juana la Loca. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t. I am half Spanish by birth and was raised in Spain: I’m bilingual. My maternal grandfather, Tomás Blanco, was a famous film actor in Spain whose career spanned from the early forties well into the seventies; and my grandmother Pilar Gomez del Real was a well-known theater actress who portrayed Juana on stage. I lived near a castle that had belonged to Juana’s parents, Isabella and Ferdinand. Clambering to its highest tower, I knew Juana had touched those same stones and perhaps marveled, as I did, at the landscape’s beauty. 

During a school trip to Granada, where Juana is buried, I found myself entranced by the marble effigy of this woman, whose face is turned away from the figure of her dead husband beside her. Most schoolchildren in Spain know the tale of Juana la Loca; she is legendary. But I immediately wanted to know more. What was she like in real life? Did she really pull her husband’s bier behind her throughout the country, venerating his corpse? What happened to her to plunge her into such despair? And what if her mythical story only tells half the tale? My vision of this vibrant princess who became the last queen of Spanish blood to inherit the throne was at odds with the bereft queen of legend, so I set out to discover if what I suspected about her was true. I felt she deserved a chance to tell her side of the story. 

RHRC: How long did it take you to write the book, and what special research was involved? 

It took me five years to write The Last Queen. As far as special research is concerned, I took two separate trips to Spain, including one in which I undertook the very journey Juana made from Burgos to her last home in Tordesillas. I visited the Alhambra and the castles associated with her, and read every contemporary account about her that I could find, including letters from her custodians to Charles V, which are currently archived in Simancas. 

It is interesting to note that during General Franco’s dictatorship (the last years of which I experienced as a child), some of the documents in Simancas were restricted to scholars who were required to have special permission to access them. The documents pertaining to Juana were included in these restrictions. I found it particularly fascinating that hundreds of years after her death the government still found it necessary to “hide” certain evidence about her. However, by the time I was researching, the documents had been made available and they provided an invaluable if at times chilling framework for the novel, in terms of which parts of her life I wanted to focus on. 

RHRC:Why are you drawn to historical fiction? 

Since childhood, I’ve loved historical fiction and I’m very happy that the genre has become so popular again. The truth is, it’s one of the oldest and finest traditions in fiction. Many of today’s novelists bring fresh, exciting perspectives to it but the basic methods for conjuring up history and the people who lived it hasn’t changed. Historical fiction at its best helps us see where we are by revealing where we’ve been. I believe such classic writers as Alexandre Dumas and Rafael Sabatini turned to historical fiction because history exerts such a powerful influence on us. I write historical fiction because I want to immerse myself in a different time and still make sense of the world I inhabit today. 

RHRC: How do you strike a balance between history and fiction? Do you think accuracy is a primary obligation for historical fiction authors? 

The balance between fact and fiction in an historical novel like mine is often a delicate one. It can even become tenuous, in particular when you are confronting issues of religion, race, sexuality, and gender. I write about people in the sixteenth century; I do not share their beliefs. The Renaissance was a brutal, quixotic, and complex time in history. As much as I strive to bring it to life for readers, the truth is we can never truly understand what it was like to actually live in the sixteenth century. The best even a very gifted historical novelist can achieve is a close approximation. 

That said, I do consider historical accuracy a primary obligation, in that the writer should not deliberately alter or distort known facts or have characters behave in an overtly modernized way just to suit a particular publishing fad or temperament. To have my lead character march at the head of an army like Joan of Arc, for example, would fly in the face of every known fact about her. 

However, facts are only a small part of a life filled with moments, and in the final say, I write fiction. My books are novels; their principal function is to entertain. I hope my readers will become immersed in the story, that they will feel it on a sensory level. I also hope, as a secondary objective, to awaken interest in the time period itself. If someone reads my book and thinks, “I want to know more about Spain in the sixteenth century,” then I’ve done what I’d set out to do. Likewise, if someone reads my book and writes to me, as they have, saying, “I couldn’t wait to turn the page,” that, too, accomplishes my goal as a novelist. 

RHRC: How hard was it to write a novel based on a real person? 

It’s always a challenge because imagination is constrained by fact. For example, I can’t change the ending, even if it ends badly. There’s also the challenge of undertaking factual research. I’m obsessive about this part; I have to find out everything I can, and that means getting in contact with libraries and archives, finding out-of-print books, setting up meetings with experts in certain areas, etc. 

For The Last Queen, I read over fifty books about Juana and her world. I took several trips, to Spain and to other parts of Europe, to trace her footsteps and view all the places where she lived. I even tried on a sixteenth-century Spanish gown so I could feel its weight and get a feel for how women moved in these ornate, heavy clothes. As a historical fiction writer, I also have to become a psychological sleuth. Facts are facts, but there ’s always more than one side of a story. 

Juana herself left almost nothing in her own hand; much of what she said and did was channeled via accounts written by men whose prejudices reflect the era and the version they were paid to tell. (Most historians were hired and paid by the current ruler.) This is where the fictional research comes in and that can be as challenging as factual research. I have to know my interpretation of my character almost as well as I know myself; I must understand her actions and what motivates her. I can’t afford to be ambiguous: I must become the person I’m writing about and stay true to the facts of her life, even if she does something that I, as myself, would not do. The fun part is that in becoming my character, I see her life through her eyes and that often changes everything. It’s a matter of perception. 

RHRC: The Last Queen is told in the first person by Juana herself. Why did you decide to use her point of view? 

I actually enjoyed the challenge of telling Juana’s story in the first person. My first drafts were in third person and something elusive was missing. It was only after I allowed myself to slip into Juana’s skin, so to speak, that I began to experience her emotional complexity. There’s a general fallacy that men cannot write women as well as women can. I disagree, just as I disagree that women cannot write from the male perspective. Writers must inhabit their characters in order to bring them to life. We are not limited by gender or appearance. We are invisible. There are no limits other than those of our imaginations. 

RHRC:What do you hope readers take away from your work? 

CWG: I seek to reveal secret histories, the stories that traditional history has either obscured, distorted, or simply ignored. I also hope readers will come away from my work with the experience that they’ve been on an emotional journey. I want them to feel the way these people lived, their hardships and joys, their differences and similarities with us. Though a Renaissance queen faced issues we don’t, love, hatred, power, intolerance, passion, and the quest for personal liberty are universal themes. 

RHRC:What is your latest project? 

I am currently working on a historical novel about Catherine de Medici, tracing her life from her tumultuous childhood in Florence to her rise to power as queen regent of France and mother of the last Valois kings. Catherine has been widely maligned and, I believe, misunderstood. Her leadership and tenacity forestalled the end of the monarchy in France by two hundred years. Without her, the history of Europe and France in particular would be very different. As a contemporary of Elizabeth I and mother-in-law to Mary, Queen of Scots, she is one of a triptych of powerful women ruling in the sixteenth century. 

From the Hardcover edition.



“This moving tale of Juana la Loca (the Mad) vividly re-creates the passion, politics, and betrayals that drove a smart and spirited queen to the brink of insanity . . . or perhaps, as C. W. Gortner suggests, to the pretense of insanity–a pretense that baffled Juana’s enemies and led to triumph for her children and her country. The Last Queen is an absorbing account of one of history’s most fascinating women, from her never-before-told point of view.”—Donna Woolfolk Cross, author of Pope Joan

“I ached for this intelligent, one-of-a-kind queen. Her struggle and passion kept me up until the early hours of the morning. A page-turner, a nail-biter, an eye-opener: I loved being possessed by The Last Queen!”—Ki Longfellow, author of The Secret Magdalene

“A vibrant tapestry of love and hate . . . brings to life an extraordinary queen at an unforgettable time in history.”—Sandra Worth, author of Lady of the Roses

“An exquisite evocation of a dangerous era and of a forgotten queen.”—Holly Payne, author of The Virgin’s Knot

“Gripping and unforgettable . . . captures Juana of Castile’s electrifying drama.”—Judith Merkle Riley, author of The Water Devil

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. This novel is told from the point of view of a woman. Do you think the male author does a convincing job of immersing the reader in Juana’s thoughts and emotions?

2. The Last Queen is set mainly in sixteenth-century Spain. What did you learn about life in Spain during this time? How does the Spanish court differ from other courts you may have read about? 

3. When Juana is told she must marry Philip, she begs to be released of her duty. How did you react to her mother, Queen Isabel, deciding to marry her off against her will? What do you think about Isabel’s notions of duty? 

4. Princesses did not often get to choose whom they would marry, nor were they allowed to leave or divorce their spouses. How does this affect Juana in her struggles? 

5. When Juana discovers her mother is dying, she realizes she cannot evade her destiny. Why do you think she decides to return to Flanders to fight for Castile? What are your impressions of her conflicts with her inheritance? 

6. The differences in societal power between men and women in the sixteenth century are a principal theme in this novel. How do they compare to gender relations today? 

7. Juana makes a terrible choice to free herself from Philip. Do you think her act was justified? How do you imagine you might have acted in her place? 

8. History has dubbed Juana the Mad Queen. Do you believe she was mad? What are your impressions of her as a person and as a monarch? 

9. Fernando of Aragon is an enigmatic personage in this novel. How do you feel about him and his actions? 

10. Which of the characters in this novel were your favorites? Which did you dislike the most? Do you think the characters were portrayed as true to their time? 

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  • The Last Queen by C. W. Gortner
  • May 05, 2009
  • Fiction - Historical
  • Ballantine Books
  • $15.00
  • 9780345501851

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