Why, oh why, did I wait so long to read my first Gortner novel? He's long been on my TBR given the non-stop raves I've heard for his other novels, and I fell into mad fangirl love after seeing him speak at the Historical Novel Society conference a few weeks ago. His speech was full of passion for the genre, respect and admiration for his fellow writers, and encouragement for all. I dove into this book immediately after the conference and couldn't put it down. Gortner's writing reminds me of the 'classic' historical fiction that is so compulsively readable, like Anya Seton, Georgette Heyer, as well as contemporary greats like Margaret George.Unsurprisingly, his characters are as passionate and warm as he is, from our heroine to our villains. Opening in 1454, the novel is narrated by Isabella of Castile. I was prepared to dislike Isabella; in 2011, I fell into hard and fast love for Lynn Cullen's Juana from her book, Reign of Madness. Juana is Isabella's daughter, and the Isabella Cullen articulated was not a woman I wanted to get cozy with. But Gortner's Isabella is an admirable, intelligent, emotional woman living in a complicated era, facing pressure few can appreciate.In terms of a royal historical novel, this has the court intrigue and political dramas one wants; the setting of 15th century Spain is artfully conveyed by Gortner's descriptions of place, dress, and manners -- detailed enough to give the flavor but not so much as to bog down the story. I will also add that it's a rare novel in which animals are so prevalent, not particularly as characters but just present in a way that also felt authentic. (Judith Tarr leaps to mind as an author who writes about animals, horses in particular, really well.) However, the characters stole the story for me, moreso than the plot, and I have to praise Gortner even more for that. Isabella had rich relationships with the women in her life, a fascinating and complicated marriage, and she could be both pig-headed and staggeringly compassionate in equal, realistic part. Even more so, he managed to take someone who I think was possibly a religious zealot (come on, she's responsible for the Inquisition!) and suggested how those events came about in a way that didn't make me want to spit on her. That Gortner likes Isabella is clear, and explains more in his Author's Afterword where he addresses her thorny legacy and his historical research, as well as his creative liberties. It was quite fascinating, and once again makes me yearn for a volume of essays by historical novels reflecting on their heroes, heroines, and research. Gortner ends the novel in 1492, the year Christopher Columbus left Spain; it's a brilliant and poignant ending, and I wanted more. Honestly, I could have used a whole second novel (although, since she dies in 1504, probably unnecessary).So, obviously, this was a huge win for me. Those who like historical royal intrigues need to get this one, as well as anyone who wants an armchair escape to 15th century Spain. It's a summery read with a little more oomph -- a gin & tonic of a historical novel, rather than a piña colada, let's say. You can read an excerpt at the author's website.