Cullen’s second historical novel about Renaissance-era Spanish royals, this time concerning the “Mad Queen,” Juana La Loca.
Cullen’s challenge is considerable: find a viable story in the life of Juana, daughter of Isabel and Ferdinand, who is known chiefly for having spent 46 years imprisoned by her family as a madwoman. And find it she does, although it only covers Juana’s brief pre-imprisonment life. Ranging from 1493, when Juana, a teenager, first spots the flaws in her parent’s supposedly idyllic marriage, to 1509, when all the shoes of fate finally drop, this is primarily a tale of a woman’s futile struggle against the entrenched patriarchy of her time. As Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) returns in triumph to her parents’ court, Juana is entranced by his son, Diego Colón. Soon, though, she is married off to Philippe the Handsome, a Burgundian archduke (and Habsburg heir) who rules Flanders. Far from home, she is at first infatuated with her Habsburg husband. However, as the licentiousness of Philippe's court compared to the relative austerity of Queen Isabel’s continues to shock, her Spanish ladies desert her, except for scholarly and chaste Beatriz. Philippe’s infidelities bring an end to the extended honeymoon, as does Juana’s delay in producing a male child. Their son Charles is born, but his deformed jaw (a Habsburg trait) impedes both nutrition and speech; however, Charles will continue the Habsburg dynasty as Holy Roman Emperor. A number of premature deaths has made Juana the heir apparent to the Spanish throne. But Philippe, by spreading rumors of her mental instability (due, he self-servingly claims, to excessive love for him, despite the fact that their marital relations are now mostly forced), manages to impugn Juana’s competence enough to elevate his own rank from King-consort to King. Juana’s ingrained ineptitude at both overt confrontation, and the more acceptable female route of subversive sabotage, will lead to her downfall, as will her passion for the commoner Diego.
Although the outcome is known, the suspense never waivers.