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Isabella: The Warrior Queen by Kirstin Downey: A Book Review

Isabella: The Warrior Queen
Author: Kirstin Downey
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography, History
Publisher: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
Release Date: 2014
Pages: 544
Source:Netgalley/Publisher in exchange for an honest review
Synopsis: An engrossing and revolutionary biography of Isabella of Castile, the controversial Queen of Spain who sponsored Christopher Columbus's journey to the New World, established the Spanish Inquisition, and became one of the most influential female rulers in history.

     Born at a time when Christianity was dying out and the Ottoman Empire was aggressively expanding, Isabella was inspired in her youth by tales of Joan of Arc, a devout young woman who unified her people and led them to victory against foreign invaders. In 1474, when most women were almost powerless, twenty-three-year-old Isabella defied a hostile brother and a mercurial husband to seize control of Castile and León. Her subsequent feats were legendary. She ended a twenty-four-generation struggle between Muslims and Christians, forcing North African invaders back over the Mediterranean Sea. She laid the foundation for a unified Spain. She sponsored Columbus's trip to the Indies and negotiated Spanish control over much of the New World with the help of Rodrigo Borgia, the infamous Pope Alexander VI. She also annihilated all who stood against her by establishing a bloody religious Inquisition that would darken Spain's reputation for centuries. Whether saintly or satanic, no female leader has done more to shape our modern world, in which millions of people in two hemispheres speak Spanish and practice Catholicism. Yet history has all but forgotten Isabella's influence, due to hundreds of years of misreporting that often attributed her accomplishments to Ferdinand, the bold and philandering husband she adored. Using new scholarship, Downey's luminous biography tells the story of this brilliant, fervent, forgotten woman, the faith that propelled her through life, and the land of ancient conflicts and intrigue she brought under her command.


     My review: Queen Isabella is one of the early pioneers of Spanish global dominance in the Americas. She helped strengthen the country’s political discord, and helped Spain to be viewed as a nation to be admired by her contemporaries. She is also the ancestor of many future descendants of the royal families in Europe. Thus, Isabella is one of the most important figures in Spanish history because of the contributions that she made in her reign.

     I've always been fascinated with Queen Isabella of Spain, and this book did not disappoint. The story of how she got to the Spanish throne was equally fascinating. She was the most unlikely inheritor, and her birth held no significance because she had two brothers. However, Queen Isabella was a political genius and she rose to the throne by herself, and not with her husband Ferdinand, who was mad at her because she took it without notifying him about it. To save her marriage, she agreed to let Ferdinand write his name first on all the political documents, which made her look insignificant to history. Therefore, all the recognition of Spain’s accomplishments were given to Ferdinand, when in fact, it was actually Isabella that deserved the credit.

     The author shows that Isabella was a loving mother. She tried to give her daughters an education that she herself lacked. And even though it was essential that daughters had to be  arranged marriages for the good of Spain, she at least found them prospective bridegrooms who were handsome and around their age so that the daughters could have a happy and successful marriage. Isabella also did not want her daughters to leave and wanted them to stay by her side, and tried everything she could to delay them from going. When they finally left, she missed them greatly.

     Overall, this biography shows that Isabella is a strong ruler, and was successful in a world that was dominated by men. The fact that she succeeded during her reign shocked many of her contemporaries that a woman could rule effectively. The author's writing was very engaging.The description of Isabella's religious views, and her reasoning with the Inquisition I found a little dry. However, I felt that it was important because it gives us an understanding of why Isabella made ruthless actions, for example her expulsion of the Moors in Granada, the Spanish Inquisition, and the treatment of the Native Americans in the American colonies. The book is not written in chronological order and focuses on the controversial topics of her reign, but this book is a very comprehensive read and is easy to understand for the general reader. This biography is very feminist, and I recommend this biography to anyone interested in seeing  Queen Isabella in a different light.

Rating: 5 out 5 stars

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