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Summary

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, 23-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 24-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.

©2014 Kirsten Downey (P)2014 Random House Audio

Critic reviews

"A strong, fascinating woman, Isabella helped to usher in the modern age, and this rich, clearly written biography is a worthy chronicle of her impressive yet controversial life." ( Kirkus Reviews)

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Wide Screen History

I got this as a double bill with Roger Crowley's Conquerers which covers the same period from aross the border in Portugal. Both are great books. The joy of this lies partly in how little I knew about Isabella who is kind of Spain's equivalent to Elizabeth the first. A woman who became Queen of Castille despite being no one's first choice and then went on to rule through a mixture of hard work, intelligence, common sense of people skills. In the debit column she established the inquisition. This is a gripping tale of how Isabella took Spain from an affiliation of kingdoms still partly occupied by the Moors to a global superpower through her cannily engineered marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon, diplomatic schmoozing with the papacy (including the Borgias) and funding of Columbus' discovery of America. As a sideline she set up the inquisition with Torquemada. With that cast of characters there's almost too much to work with but the author brings it together beautifully to offer a panoramic view of one of the most dynamic periods in history. Highly recommended; think about this and "Conquerers" as a double bill.

4 people found this helpful

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A great listen

Where does Isabella: The Warrior Queen rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

This has to be among the best I have listened to. Well written and narrated history of one of Spain's greatest monarchs

What did you like best about this story?

Surprised how much there was to learn

Which character – as performed by Kimberly Farr – was your favourite?

All of them

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

Yes

Any additional comments?

Highly recommend

3 people found this helpful

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Listened to it twice!

Thoroughly enjoyed this book. What a Queen! Amazing accomplishments, learned so much more about her. Such a shame the Spanish Inquisition blighted her reputation.

2 people found this helpful

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Magnificent story of a truly remarkable woman

I have rarely enjoyed a story this much especially as the author has presented a great story full of little known facts without ever becoming dry and overzealous about unnecessary details. Love the narrator who speaks clearly and with the right amount of expression in her voice.

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Brilliant

Recommended for fans of historical biography - Isabella's life and the relevant events surrounding it are all covered. Narration was perfect from Kimberly Farr.

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Remarkable Research

Fascinating. Remarkable collation of primary Research from world wide collections of material. Chronological telling made the story easy to follow.

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Excellent feminist view with fresh investigation

This work following my personal extensive reading on this subject from other writers has left me feeling very impressed by the approach taken and the conclusions drawn - albeit there are anomalies and possible errors in details overall I believe many new insights having been raised in this work which require further investigation and verification by others to consolidate the new facts that have come to light as a result of the personal investigations carried out by the author and which would prove beneficial to the history of women and which which men ( like Fernando)would subsume for their own glory

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Beginning of Spanish Empire

Excellent book. Enjoyed the detailed research and broad context given of the times in which it all happened.

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  • Linda Erlich
  • 03-12-14

Good Biography! Learned so much about the Queen

I have read many historical novels and books about Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand and how they united Spain and began the European conquest of the New World by financing Colombus. I have also read about their daughters, especially Juana and Catalina. I am a student of history and have been studying world history both formally in school, including college, and informally through my personal reading for over 50 years.

However, I never knew of Isabella's direct responsibility for the infamous Spanish Inquisition. This biography, with references, credits the queen with the major responsibility for this holocaust. Of course, she was a product of the times during which she lived. From her perspective, she was saving these people's souls from a hellish afterlife and doing the work of G-d. However even the Pope disagreed with her.

I always thought it was the church that was responsible for the torture, massacre and dispossession of non-Catholics in Spain during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. But I was wrong. It was Isabella and Ferdinand. Talk about self-rightgous fanatics!

This book was indeed very enlightening!

14 people found this helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 11-01-15

Utterly Fascinating

This is a beautifully written, meticulously researched, and wonderfully narrated book on one of the most controversial figures in world history. Queen Isabella ruled from 1474 to 1504 but those 30 years changed in the world in many-many important ways. This book is a detailed chronicle of those years and has been written and narrated in such a way that I felt that I was transported to that time and actually watched these events unfold as a silent observer. I would recommend this book highly not just to the erudite historian but to a lay person like me that wants to know what forces shaped our existence and how we came to the peoples that we are today.

8 people found this helpful

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  • Alie
  • 16-08-21

12 MILLION BILINGUAL EN-SP speakers in the US...

...yet PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE AUDIO, via Director Kim Smith and Exec. Producer Dan Musselman, (Director of Studio Production for Penguin Random House Audio), and author Kirstin DOWNEY, ...couldn't find ONE NARRATOR out of those 12 million bilingual people in the US, to narrate this book with proper Spanish pronunciation???

- Nor AMONG the 41 MILLION NATIVE SPANISH speakers in the US?
- Nor over 463 MILLION Spanish-speakers WORLDWIDE?

The mispronunciations, repeatedly referred to in the text as "anglicized" versions of historical figures' names (but then employed inconsistently) are egregious, and the mangling of well-known geographical place names such as "Andalucia," are so horrible in this narration that I repeatedly stopped and started it, and wanted to throw my phone across the room. Only finished it because I'd promised my Mom we could discuss it.

And that's only my FIRST problem with this pseudo-biography and apologist propaganda for one of the most pivotal, lucky, and brutal, world leaders history has ever known.

This is NOT A HISTORY BOOK. This is NOT A DEFINITIVE BIOGRAPHY.

Yes, Isabel was a powerful woman, unusual for her time, AND she was still brutal, calculating, merciless, and in the right place at the right time.

In fact, the crux of the many problems with this book are glaringly apparent If you skip to the last chapter. There author Downey HERSELF, apparently an accomplished journalist, lists all the problems with this book:

- Apologetic portrayal of brutality - because "everybody" was doing it (albeit Queen Isabel was supposedly an extremely pious Catholic ruler and asked Columbus, etc. to treat the indigenous inhabitants of the "Indies" with "love" while they were being forcibly converted to Catholicism.) Instead, Columbus and his men, raped, enslaved, pillaged, and slaughtered.

- Although the author appears to find it significant that Isabel managed, as a WOMAN, to be a powerful ruler, the text is full of PATRIARCHAL, gossipy tropes, such as calling princesses "saucy", and comments such as "perhaps Ferdinand had grown tired of being married to an ailing [53 y.o.] woman", as well as quotes such a "Ferdinand was "right lusty for his age' [also 53 y.o]...", etc. etc. etc.

- Apologetic comparison of the eventual holocaust of upwards of at least 150 MILLION indigenous inhabitants of the Americas due to the Spanish invasion and occupation - compared to the apx. 1400 invaders of Spanish (et al southern Europeans) who did not return from their adventures to the Spanish-backed forays in the "Indies" - where they spread Smallpox, other pandemic illnesses, and then tortured, enslaved, raped, maimed, and massacred indigenous populations. But the Europeans were "brave" to go adventuring.

- The author, rather unbelievably, attempts to juxtapose as comparable the trans-Atlantic transfer and disease spread of a "new" strain of SYPHILIS, (a disease which most certainly already existed in Europe), to the pandemic suffering the Spanish disease carriers inflicted upon the indigenous population - subsequently wiping out approximately 80 to 90% of those 150 MILLION indigenous inhabitants of the Northern, Central, and Southern American continents. The author compares this as a sort of "exchange" of illnesses due to the reported spread of a more virulent form of syphilis which some researchers claim was brought back and spread among the European nobility as their "adventurers' returned from the Indies to the European continent. The author even notes reports of cannibalism, as a justification for the brutal reactions on the part of European adventurers towards natives. But then brushes it off by saying "even Europeans had resorted to cannibalism at times."

However, she repeatedly omits the hugely lopsided gravity of the impact of the European illnesses and violent colonization on the indigenous population, whose lands were partially later repopulated by later European colonizers and European based slave importation of African indigenous individuals, again, for profit.

- The author explains in an "AFTERWORD" her own initial interest in Isabel was due to her own childhood few months spent in south Florida, and Panama at age 6. And indeed, the book focuses almost solely on the activity of the Spanish in the Caribbean islands and coastlines, while generally ignoring and barely mentioning the fact that the (modern equivalent of) BILLIONS of wealth in gold that poured into the Spanish coffers came from the interiors of the Americas: Colombia, Mexico, etc. And in the process of obtaining that gold, the Spanish enslaved, and virtually eliminated, the existing civilizations such as the Aztecs, Incas, and even up into the Pueblo and Plains tribes of what is now the Southwestern US, plus on up into the Catholic Church's seizure of power and murderous oppressive practices, including the imposition of child abuse via the "Indian School" systems north into what is now coming to light even in Canada.

- The author even tacitly excuses the Queen's governing over the establishment of the SPANISH INQUISITION (copied by other Catholic countries, and again spread to the Americas), which Isabel clearly mandated and supported. Yet, author Downey repeatedly premises that primary blame for the Inquisition should be laid at the feet of her weak co-ruler: Ferdinand. Convenient.

- The author purports to have studied at Spain's eminent, Universidad de Salamanca, and to have pursued the study of Spanish history, art, and culture. However, her official bio gives no degree program nor indication of how she may have studied at the Universidad de Salamanca. Rather it states she studied journalism at Pennsylvania State University. How long was she in Spain as a young woman "shortly after the death of Franco" [1975} as she describes? I was also in Spain in the late 70's, studying at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, and have a subsequent degree in Spanish Literature. As I recall La Universidad de Salamanca had short Spanish Language classes for foreigners at that time, but it did not accept foreign students into degree programs. Does Ms. Downey actively continue to speak & read Spanish? Or was she only working from translations? And which translations? She also states she paid for some translations - which ones?

In the last chapter of her book she states she did most of her "primary resources" research at the US Library of Congress which she calls "The World's Preeminent Library." Sorry, but the University of Salamanca (est. 1252) library, for example, existed long before the US Library of Congress, and even the Spanish governors' records that are available at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, were also in existence long before. She also mentions Harvard University's Judaica Collection, and that she favored "first person reports" regarding the Kingdom of Granada and the Ottoman Empire from "Eastern European sources". Eastern Europe? Why not go to the source, Arabic writers? She states she traveled to Spain, England, France, Panama and Puerto Rico to do research for this book. Why not go to Istanbul? Cairo? To the Institute du Monde Arabe in Paris? To the preserved libraries available via the many Universities in the Agha Kahn Foundation, and via its corresponding Museum and Library systems? The anglophone oriented tone is evident throughout the book- albeit perhaps beneath the level of the author's consciousness, same as her perpetuation of patriarchal language stereotypes as previously mentioned.

She ends her book by heralding "The Columbian Exchange" as beneficial to both sides of the "exchange". I would venture to say the souls of the 150 million who died as a result are stirring in their forced resting places. Again, it is estimated the arrival of Spanish invaders to the Americas resulted in an 80 to 90 percent reduction in the number of indigenous peoples by the 16th century.

As an American tourist in Spain perhaps she was able to stomach the painful mispronunciations of the Spanish names and words, but I am not. As a bi-lingual scholar with a degree in Spanish Literature, as well as many years spent living in Spain, and in Latin America, neither am I able to stomach her attempts to temper the gravity and slaughter of civilizations due to search for treasure and proselytizing.

4 people found this helpful

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  • Autodidact
  • 19-12-17

Fascinating history.

Always interested in the past/how little the individual means. Sometimes a great individual comes along

4 people found this helpful

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  • Roman
  • 31-08-17

Absolutely Magnificent!

What made the experience of listening to Isabella: The Warrior Queen the most enjoyable?

In these days of political correctness, it's such a pleasure to read a biography like this one which is so well researched and accurately reported. The fact that it is was such a long book with no dull periods is a double bonus. While I was aware of Queen Isabell's phenomenal accomplishments, I appreciated the way the author skillfully portrayed all of her personal qualities and unprecedented moral courage----more than any monarch of whom I am aware. I also enjoyed her accurate characterization of Ferdinand---a snake who has been treated all too favorably in most historical accounts.

Who was your favorite character and why?

Naturally, the Queen!

What does Kimberly Farr bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

I thought that Ms.Farr read as though she wrote the book herself, clearly showing the approval and reprobation of the author. I also found her to be a very engaging narrator and, while she mispronounced a few Spanish words, her overall pronunciation of proper nouns was superior to most readers. Since this is one of my pet peeves, I found the criticism of her pronunciation in other reviews a bit unfair.

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

It didn't make me laugh or cry, but it certainly kept me engaged and made if very difficult to put down.

Any additional comments?

Mega-kudos to this fine author. I can't wait to read her other works.

3 people found this helpful

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  • Ann
  • 25-11-16

Narration is nasal, arrogant, annoying.

What made the experience of listening to Isabella: The Warrior Queen the most enjoyable?

The biography seems well-researched, ruined by the breezy, silly narration.

What other book might you compare Isabella: The Warrior Queen to and why?

Sister Queens. Biography.

What didn’t you like about Kimberly Farr’s performance?

A more mature reading would have better fit the subject. Her flat accent sounds gossipy, conspiratorial, forced.

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

Neither. It's a scholarly work.

6 people found this helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 23-02-15

Poorly narrated

What disappointed you about Isabella: The Warrior Queen?

The narrator's inability to pronounce in Spanish

What was your reaction to the ending? (No spoilers please!)

The narration was so bad I could not finish the book.

15 people found this helpful

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  • MamaHoneyBadger
  • 18-07-19

Lots of facts

I really enjoyed this book. Very informative with many first person sources! I grew up thinking that Isabella was a much less powerful queen than she really was.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Michael J. Rosenthal
  • 06-01-15

A great prep for a trip to Spain

My wife and I are planning to spend a month in Spain in the near future. I think the story of Isabella is central to Spanish history. While I plan to extend my reading I think this was a good basis.

The story is dramatic and captivating and it's telling never lost my attention.I may even listen to it again!

The narration was excellent.

5 people found this helpful

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  • Steaven Chan
  • 29-12-14

Excellent

Would you listen to Isabella: The Warrior Queen again? Why?

I couldn't believe how a history book could be so gripping. Love this book.

Any additional comments?

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in history or the background of Christianity during the age of discovery.

4 people found this helpful