I’ve read some Shakespeare in my life and I have usually enjoyed his plays quite a lot. However, I have never read King Lear (shame on me, I know). I tend to prefer Shakespeare’s tragedies to his comedies – at least when reading them instead of actually watching a play – so I thought, why not try this feminist fantasy retelling without actually knowing the source material? I still intend to read King Lear eventually but I also really liked this experiment of reading a retelling first.
THE QUEENS OF INNIS LEAR
by Tessa Gratton
Published: Tor, 2018
Hardcover: 575 pages
Audiobook: 26 hours 22 minutes
My rating: 7,75/10
Opening line: It begins when a wizard cleavers an island from the mainland, because the king destroyed her temple.
A kingdom at risk, a crown divided, a family drenched in blood.
The erratic decisions of a prophecy-obsessed king have drained Innis Lear of its wild magic, leaving behind a trail of barren crops and despondent subjects. Enemy nations circle the once-bountiful isle, sensing its growing vulnerability, hungry to control the ideal port for all trade routes.
The king’s three daughters—battle-hungry Gaela, master manipulator Regan, and restrained, starblessed Elia—know the realm’s only chance of resurrection is to crown a new sovereign, proving a strong hand can resurrect magic and defend itself. But their father will not choose an heir until the longest night of the year, when prophecies align and a poison ritual can be enacted.
Refusing to leave their future in the hands of blind faith, the daughters of Innis Lear prepare for war—but regardless of who wins the crown, the shores of Innis will weep the blood of a house divided.
This was quite an adventure… This is, first and foremost, the story of three sisters who grew up on the island of Innis Lear, a place filled with magic but also superstition. It used to be that the magical wells were allowed to feed the land and the trees. But King Lear has done away with all that, trusting only in the stars. His youngest daughter Elia has learned to read the stars, make star charts, tell the future from stars, just like her father wants. So it seems clear that, when Lear is about to announce his successor, Elia will be his choice. But things don’t turn out that way and so begins an almost 600-page-long tale of war, love, revenge, grief, magic, and death. It was brilliant!
I loved how Tessa Gratton introduces her readers to all the characters first. There are quite a few but she took enough time to give each of them a personality. The alternating POV chapters help flesh out the characters and make each of them interesting in their own right. Elia was the easiest to like. She’s a good child who cares deeply for her ageing father. All she wants is to live quietly and happily, without ambition. Regan wants a child, more than anything, but so far has only had miscarriages and it weighs on her heavily. Of course she mostly wants a baby for herself and her husband, but she is also thinking about the line of succession. A queen who can’t promise her people an heir may not be queen for long. And Gaela lives for war. She wants battlefields and power, blood and strength, and most of all – her father’s throne. Her plan is to rule as king with her sister as queen.
You can see already that this book turns dark. Like many Shakespeare tragedies, the body count stays pretty low for a while but it might just go through the roof by the end. What starts as mere ambition or, in some characters’ minds, their given birthright, spirals into something quite more. Because in addition to these three amazing women characters, there are some equally amazing men among the cast. First and foremost is Ban the Fox, a Lord’s bastard son who used to be friends with Elia when they were children. When I read about these two, I couldn’t help but hope for a story quite different to the want that awaited me. I would have gladly read a romance book about Elia and Ban. But, alas, we are in a Shakespeare retelling and so I prepared myself for terrible things. Because whether there is love or not, as the succession gets more and more hazy, Elia has to think about alliances much more than love when it comes to picking a potential husband.
My biggest trouble with reviewing this book is that I don’t want to give anything away. You’d think that in 575 pages, there would be some things I could tell you but the thing is, this tale unravels so beautifully, more and more secrets are revealed over time, and the plot thickens constantly, even when not much seems to happen. I’ll give you a few teasers, though. There is a very tense (but fantastic) relationship between Ban and his legitimate half-brother. There is also a mystery surrounding the death of King Lear’s wife. And there are prophecies and tree magic and love and family. I think this is a book that everyone can take something different away from. For me, it was in large part about a young girl growing into her own and finding her place in the world, regardless of her father’s wishes or society’s expectations. And, I admit, I was also rooting for Ban and Elia to get together, never mind marriage alliances.
I should also mention that this is marketed as a feminist Shakespeare retelling and it absolutely is! If by “feminist” you mean it features a diverse cast of different kinds of women who get to be flawed but powerful, soft or assertive, girly or genderfluid. And if you worry that the three protagonists are the only women this tale have to offer, I can reassure you. They may not appear as much as Elia, Regan, and Gaela, but there are other women characters who are just as interesting as the Lear sisters. In flashback chapters, we get to see the girls’ mother, and we meet Ban’s mother as well, who is probably the coolest character in the entire book. I also found it funny how the men in this story keep trying to steer the tale when it’s clearly the women who hold the reigns.
Now that I’ve made this sound like the greatest book ever, let me tell you about the few things I didn’t particularly like. With a book this size, I always expect there to be a certain, slowish build up to the big climax and I really enjoyed it here, because it gave me time to get to know the characters and the various factions vying for the throne of Innis Lear. But when that explosive ending did finally arrive, it felt rushed in comparison. Suddenly, every single chapter had a Big Thing happening, people died, secrets were revealed, and it all just felt like too much at once.
Secondly, I wanted more magic! I know, I know, that’s a ridiculous thing to whine about but this book gives us such nice glimpses into a cool kind of magic (several kinds, in fact) and then it does almost nothing with it. It’s probably because I’m mostly a fantasy reader but I felt there was wasted potential on the magic front. Someone who doesn’t read as much fantasy as me will probably not mind at all.
Lastly, the writing style was amazing. I thought for the longest time that this was a debut novel and I just couldn’t believe it. Turns out that I was totally wrong and Tessa Gratton has published quite a few works before this one. I don’t know if all her books are written so well or if she’s just grown better over time but keeping me entertained and on the edge of my seat for this amount of time is no small feat. This was not a fast read and it wasn’t exactly fun because lots of dark stuff happens, but it was an incredibly rewarding one. And I’ll surely be checking out Tessa Gratton’s new “hand holding a crown” book, Lady Hotspur, which is inspired by Henry IV. Maybe this time, I’ll read the Shakespeare first and see how that goes.
MY RATING: 7,75/10 – Leaning towards excellent