A young woman learns a secret about her past while Columbus plots to explore the world in this historical novel set during the Spanish Inquisition.
Isabella, a young noblewoman in Castile, is soon to marry her love when she is kidnapped and thrust into the world of persecuted Jews. She learns that her parents weren’t really the Catholic nobles who raised her. Her captors hide her in the harem of a Moorish king. Meanwhile, a young rebel called Miguel Costa fights for religious freedom, and Christopher Columbus plots to convince Queen Isabella, who is focused on ridding her domain of Moors, to support his worldly explorations. Gafni’s understanding of the time period seems paramount, and her plot is solid. Isabella’s movement between different cultures allows readers to explore what it was like to be a Catholic, Jew or Moor during one of history’s darkest periods. However, Gafni’s omniscient third-person narration overreaches, so that instead of focusing on a few touchstone characters, Gafni delves into backstories, emotions and motivations of countless characters. As a result, the novel feels unfocused, and many sections could have been edited out without affecting the novel. Scenes of negotiation between Columbus and Queen Isabella, though they may be important to the story in the grand scheme, only distract from the more interesting trajectory of Isabella’s awakening to the deadly bigotry in her world. The author frequently editorializes about characters’ actions or motivations instead of letting words or actions speak for themselves. For example, telling a reader that “Isabella stood in the middle of her bedchamber feeling lost and powerless. It was an overwhelming feeling” does little to evoke emotion or interest. Furthermore, the author is prone to revealing her hand too easily. The reader knows long before Isabella who her real parents are, so the reader feels no surprise when it is finally revealed to Isabella herself.
A gripping plot and the author’s research get buried in backstory, exposition and subplots.