Destined from birth for greatness, Joanna I begins her early life with her younger sister Maria as an orphan raised in the opulent court of her grandfather, Robert the Wise. When her grandfather dies in her early teens, Joanna is crowned queen of Naples and begins a reign fraught with treachery and difficulty. Not only does Joanna deal with the political upheavals that were so common during the middle ages, she must also contend with the meddling papacy, financial disasters and challenges to the legitimacy of her reign by the King of Hungary. To make matters worse, Joanna is wed to Andrew of Hungary, a union that is strained and unpopular with her subjects from the very start. When Andrew is viciously murdered, Joanna's reign takes a a frightening trajectory into the realm of revenge and savagery. But as the Queen fights for her life and her kingdom, she maintains an attitude of nobility and graciousness showing the world that she is truly fit to lead her nation and leaving a lasting legacy for future generations.
I am not usually a reader of history or historical biography, so when I received this book I was a little concerned that it wouldn't be engaging enough to hold my attention. As I cracked the spine on the book and sat down to read, I found that it did take a little bit of time to orient myself into the medieval world that the author was documenting and for the first few chapters I struggled a bit. I think this was due to the fact that there was a huge section of exposition on the history of the area that was necessary to set the stage for the main story to be told. As I waded in further, I found that the tale of Joanna's reign was not only very engrossing, but exciting to read about and ponder over. I think that Goldstone has an incredible gift for bringing history to life and a way of telling her tale that absorbs the reader and places them squarely into the grist of the drama. The writing was not showy or flashy but it managed to capture me and keep me involved until the very last page.
I marveled at the strength of Joanna, for it seemed that her reign was plagued with every sort of trial that could possibly come along. During her time as Queen, not only was there the regular pressure of running the kingdom but also challenges to her sovereignty coming from every side and faction. It was incredible to me that she was able to withstand so much disaster and never even think of abdicating her throne. It was also amazing to me how many threats came from her immediate family. Some of the most grievous situations came from her sister Maria, but other relatives didn't bat an eye at creating dangerous situations for her or committing treason as well. It is said in many instances in the book that Joanna had the demeanor and staunchness that the ruler of a nation needs, and that her tenacity to hold on to her kingdom, and even add to it, was extremely impressive, not only for her time, but for ours as well.
On of the things that surprised me about this time in history was how many schemes and machinations were going on within the realm. It seemed that most of the troubles started over attempts to increase domains and kingdoms, or the possibility of generating revenue. It was almost comic the way people switched alliances at that time. One minute they were the Queen's trusted advisors and the next moment they had switched sides and were attempting to overthrow her. These schemes were most obvious from courtiers and family members, but I was flabbergasted to see that many of the Popes played this game as well. It was almost as if everyone was operating for themselves and their fortunes alone and that loyalty was a foreign concept to them. It must have been devastating for Joanna to have everyone turn on her at one time or another, and I can imagine it made it very hard for her to truly trust anyone.
There were some really exceptional qualities about Joanna's rule that are worth mentioning in this review. First of all, during Joanna's tenure as Queen, there were more women matriculated to become doctors in her kingdom than in any other place during that period of time. It is not clear if this was because there was just more opportunity for the schooling of women or if this situation existed because there was a female in power during this time, but I find the fact amazing. Also amazing was the fact that not only did Joanna hold onto her kingdom, but she was able to increase the size of her domain through several military campaigns during her reign. This is doubly impressive when you consider that she had to rely on those whose loyalties were suspect to accomplish this goal. She also managed to keep in her subjects' good graces throughout her reign and made sure that all of them received aid and alms as long as she was in power.
Reading about Joanna was very enlightening for me and I found that I was very invested in this particular woman's story. I think that there were two factors that made this so. The first was the quality of the writing. The clarity and crisp style of the narrative was definitely something that made the book exceptionally entertaining to me, and the second was the story itself. There was simply too much going on to be bored by this tale. Although it was sometimes work to keep the players in the drama straight, there was so much intrigue and scandal scattered throughout the book as to make it a very rollicking read. I think that this would be a great read for those who like historical biography. I also think that this book would have wide appeal to those who are interested in this time and place in history and it would be a great read to cut your teeth on if you are not usually a reader of this genre. A highly entertaining read. Recommended.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.