STARRED REVIEW
November 2014

A queen who made her mark

By Kirstin Downey
Review by
From “Game of Thrones” to The Pillars of the Earth, popular culture offers up medieval stories where royals grab for power, where crucial alliances are built between church and state, where important people suddenly fall over dead after a sumptuous meal, poisoned by a hidden rival. But this world did, in fact, exist, and the subject of Kirstin Downey’s fascinating new biography, Isabella: The Warrior Queen, maneuvered through it with unlikely and thrilling success.
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BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, November 2014

From “Game of Thrones” to The Pillars of the Earth, popular culture offers up medieval stories where royals grab for power, where crucial alliances are built between church and state, where important people suddenly fall over dead after a sumptuous meal, poisoned by a hidden rival. But this world did, in fact, exist, and the subject of Kirstin Downey’s fascinating new biography, Isabella: The Warrior Queen, maneuvered through it with unlikely and thrilling success.

Most have heard of Isabella and Ferdinand, the monarchs who commissioned Columbus’ famous voyage, but what is less widely known is that Isabella ran the kingdom while Ferdinand merely signed the papers. Born in 1451, she left her fingerprints all over Spain by initiating the Inquisition, waging war against foes, pursuing a trans-Atlantic empire and brilliantly matchmaking her five children.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of an acclaimed biography of Frances Perkins, Downey is a brilliant storyteller. Despite the difficulties posed by a limited and inevitably incomplete archive, she writes with eloquence and intensity about Isabella’s life. And readers will quickly see why she chose to write about this medieval queen, whose life often seems pulled from the pages of a novel. Take, for example, Isabella’s engagement to a man she passionately did not want to marry. She prayed to God to smite either the man or her, and the suitor died on the road of a sudden illness.

Because she wanted her daughters to be powerful leaders, Isabella made sure that their education (unlike her own) included instruction in Latin. And when she encountered the articulate dreamer Christopher Columbus, she chose to financially support his expeditions against the recommendations of her advisors. Downey’s Isabella is a generous, insightful and extremely ambitious leader who was determined to expand her kingdom against daunting odds—and who helped shape the world we inhabit today.

RELATED CONTENT: Read our Q&A with Downey about Isabella

 

This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Isabella

Isabella

By Kirstin Downey
Nan A. Talese
ISBN 9780385534116

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