Isabel the Queen: Life and Times (The Middle Ages Series) - Peggy K. Liss A few things to note before reading this review:

1. I am a major history buff. I read all sorts of history books, from non-fiction to fiction, and first-source documents. I usually dislike heavily revisionist history, but I still read them all the same. This is more an academic book and extremely research heavy. The writing can be dense at times, and simply unbearable for the more action-driven readers. If you’re a fan of only fiction or streamline, popular non-fiction, you may not enjoy this book as much.

2. This is a non-fiction book that details (surprise), the life and times of Isabella. This means that while there is intrigue, war, and politicking, it is still historical non-fiction, not heavily researched historical fiction (for an excellent example of one such book, see Legacy). The tone of the novel is academic and “omnipotent;” the author knows what will happen, and wants us to know what she has in mind.

3. Full disclosure: I wrote a mini thesis on the rise and fall of the kingdom of Granada, which heavily involved Isabella and Fernando. I will try to be as objective as possible, though my previous research experience will undoubtedly color my view of Liss and Isabella.

4. Upon re-reading, my review is definitely more Isabella-heavy than Liss-heavy. In fact, I created my “BAMF” shelf because of Isabella’s awesomeness. You have been warned. But, in all seriousness, Liss is really good, and if any of what I say interests you keeping in mind the notes above, you really can’t go wrong with Liss.

5. Apologies in advance for tangents and the occasional satiation of my inner (actually, outer, too) nerd.

Now, please proceed onto the gush fest for the queen of late-medieval queens, Isabella I.

Not many people know about Isabella in the English-speaking world. Those who do know of her recognize her as the woman who helped Columbus "discover" the Americas. It's understandable, in some ways. My reading peers being mostly English speakers and readers, we are granted a wealth of literature on similarly strong-willed and powerful queens, such as Elizabeth I and Victoria and, oddly, the French Eleanor of Aquitaine, though it makes sense since her husband Henry II was King of England and her son was Richard the Lionheart.

In light of the number of authors who specialize in the above figures, more is the pity that we hardly have any quality English literature on one of the most overlooked yet fascinating queens of all, Isabella of Castile.

Don't get me wrong--in Spain, Isabella has maintained a status as the holy Catholic queen, untouchable and unshakable, glorious and illustrious, set upon an equally high (or higher) pedestal that we place Elizabeth I. But outside the Spanish-speaking world, very little is known. Few are familiar with the propaganda war she initiated with her then husband-to-be, Fernando (Anglicized as Ferdinand), that led her to her rocky ascension to the throne. (A rather dirty and ruthless propaganda war that relegates contemporary election time advertising and political maneuverings to child's play, I might add. She institutionalized the saying Tanto monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando, which translates into "One and the same, Isabella the same as Ferdinand" that placed her on equal standing as her husband. Keep in mind that Fernando was not a pushover; he was ruthless, clever, and ambitious. Machiavelli, in describing the attributes of a powerful leader, once said: "A prince must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves," referring to Fernando in everything but name. To keep in check a man like Fernando in a highly patriarchic and religious society, Isabella had to be stronger and smarter that the fox and lion prince. Besides that, she was madly wealthy as the heir of then-prosperous Castile and was considered quite the catch for any politically ambitious man.

Isabella was also a woman with far-reaching vision. Spain was not really “Spain” until Isabella and Fernando. Rather, Spain was the Iberian peninsula, resembling more a collection of rowdy, divisive kingdoms with eons-old grudges that shared a border with the powerful (although dwindling) Muslim kingdom of Granada. While Fernando wanted to wage a vanity war against the Italian Kingdom of Naples, which he considered the ancient territory of his homeland Aragon, Isabella was thinking bigger. She wanted to unite Spain in territory, mind, and religion. She did this by first ousting the “outsiders,” instigating the Granadan War and after the conquest uniting the Spanish kingdoms into one cohesive unit. The rest is, how they say, history.

In describing momentous events such as the two above, however, Liss presents more than just a timeline of important wars and dates. In explaining the stages of Isabella’s reign, she presents her findings in a way that poses more questions than answers. For example, Isabella was the main impetus behind the Granadan war, an almost decade-long war that really put to the spotlight the root of Isabella’s motivations and ambitions. Was Isabella an intolerant religious fanatic who wiped out the corrupt and dwindling Muslim kingdom in a long and costly war for the sake of God? Or was it a calculated political move that would establish the foundations for a unified Spain of the future? Questions about the true psychology of a leader in a time of heavily politicized situations that required concealment and trickery emerge often in historical literature. It's like choosing two puzzle pieces out of a set of one thousand. Do those puzzle pieces fit together, and how so? If not, why?

The beauty of Liss’s writing is that she captures Isabella’s mindset as well as she explains political undercurrents, and she presents both perspectives simultaneously and cohesively. She poses questions, and while she presents her point of view, she leaves room for inquiry. Much of this is due to Liss’s vast knowledge on the subject; frankly, her research is quite impressive. Liss presents in excruciating detail the political and social situation of a time lost to us long ago, while maintaining the epic vision of the “birth” of Spain. She breathes life into one of the most mysterious queens of all time, preserving her mystic status while grounding her at the same time. It is a testament to Isabella’s intelligence and will that she is still so very well known in our age when women too easily faded into obscurity or remain as vilified figures that are subject to revisionist history. It isn’t a too terrible crowd that luckily for us spawned interesting literature, which includes among its ilk Agrippina, Marie Antoinette, and Cleopatra. However, even if those women have gained recognition through their infamy or popular curiosity, their names do not approach the gravitas of monarchs like Isabella I. Peggy Liss understands this and paints a realistic portrait of a woman who was once arguably the most powerful woman in Christendom.

I really wish there were more English literature on Isabella. But this is a good place to start to get an expansive picture of a fascinating woman, especially if you’re an aspiring history author who is looking for some solid research material. *wink*

Five stars for great writing, stupendous research, and a fascinating subject.