My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Length: 576 pages
Release date: 27 March 2018
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 Reagan, 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.
It’s necessary to maintain a certain amount of skepticism about all retellings. Telling the same story from a new angle while still capturing the essence of the original is hardly easy, especially when the original was written by the English language’s most renowned playwright. To write a novel as powerful as she has, Tessa Gratton not only knows how to retell the story, she understands how to retell it. The result is a magnificent, smart take on the King Lear you know and hate, which keeps you on their toes until the very end.
First things first: You don’t have to have studied King Lear to enjoy The Queens of Innis Lear, but it would definitely enhance the experience if you know at least a) the Wikipedia synopsis and b) a few of its most famous quotes, variants of which pop up now and then. If you haven’t guessed, this is basically what I did, being too lazy to actually read King Lear. (The heresy.)
Trust me, that basic knowledge is worth the time it takes to read a Wiki page, because The Queens of Innis Lear was a much more faithful retelling than I’d initially been expecting. It’s not a spin-off or an “inspired by” like many fantasy novels called retellings are these days; it’s an actual retelling of King Lear that for the first 50% sticks very closely to Shakespeare’s plot.
That said, The Queens of Innis Lear shines most when it diverges from King Lear. Those moments are limited and long in the making, but when they did happen, some made me audibly gasp. Prepare yourself to be surprised. King Lear is the story of a tragic mad despot and his three daughers–two villainous, one pure of heart. The Queens of Innis Lear, on the contrary, is the story of three sisters and one young man fighting in their own ways to survive in a world that often refuses to accept them, and the people who influence them.
And that makes a huge difference. Because in Gratton’s retelling, King Lear is no longer at the centre of his own story. Not counting flashbacks, where we do occasionally see Lear’s perspective, I recall seven POV characters amongst the sprawling cast, and none of them are Lear. Instead, this story belongs to Goneril (renamed Gaela), to Regan, to Cordelia/Elia, to Edmund/Ban, to Aefa (Elia’s best friend and a new character), to the King of France/Morimaros. To everyone but Lear himself.
I’m going to spend quite a while talking about the characters. Holy fudge cakes, Tessa Gratton’s characters are amazing, especially the Lear sisters. I’ll admit that she does, like most critics of King Lear, disproportionately focus on the youngest. At one point, I felt like every other chapter was Elia’s POV, who I really didn’t find as interesting as Gaela or Regan. Even so, she’s made the two elder sisters shine in their limited chapters.
First off, Gaela.
“She had patience, yes. The patience of a wolf; the patience of red-hot coals, tucked under black ash where their fire could not yet be seen, not until it was needed. And then everything that did not get out of her way would burn.”
She’s ambitious, bold and vengeful, often too much so, in a society that already questions her for being a martially inclined woman. What’s great is that Gaela isn’t simply the warrior woman you see in so many fantasy novels, she’s also a shrewd political operator with an extraordinary vision. She yearns to turn Innis Lear, an island steeped in old nature religion and magic, into a secular, modernised state, and her battle to do so is one of the defining conflicts of her character arc.
Gaela’s most ardent supporter is none other than her sister Regan.
“She knew what it was like to love too much and yet never be able to change a thing.”
In The Queens of Innis Lear, Regan is beautiful, charming and every bit as deadly as Gaela. But, just like Gaela, she isn’t merely a trope. Regan is also the most devout of the three sisters to the old religion communing with trees, roots and wind, to whom she prays for the child that she’s been unable to get in so many years of miscarriages. Regan is truly a tragic figure and, I think, my favourite character, barely edging out several others. She and Connley, Gratton’s Cornwall, aren’t nearly as evil as the originals, but they’re still a delicious power couple.
Finally, there’s Elia, as ever the dutiful daughter.
“Sometimes we forgive others because it keeps our own hearts whole, not because they deserve it or for any thought of them.”
I hated Elia at first. Her seeming self-righteousness and absolute devotion to Lear was bland and grating. I still don’t love her, but she comes into her own over the course of the novel, asserts her quiet strength and learns from her mistakes.
The fact that the Lear sisters are given a foreign mother, Dalat of the matriarchal Third Kingdom, adds an interesting extra dimension that is well-explored in the novel. They’re half-outsiders for their dark skin alone, and have to cross the extra hurdle of proving their legitimacy as heirs to Innis Lear, whether it by physical prowess or religious piety.
Ban the Fox, aka Edmund, is elevated to a main character (the protagonist, even, if you squint). At the start, I found him as banal as Elia, but it’s wicked clever how his character develops bit by bit, at first so subtle that you wonder if it’s happening. By the end, Ban was one of my favourites. The amount of attention the novel gives him is justified.
There are so many other characters that I can’t possibly point out my thoughts on each one of them. The ones to look out for, in my opinion, include Brona Hartfare, Osli, Connley and of course Dalat. Dalat only appears briefly in a handful of flashbacks, but her shadow looms large over every decision made on Innis Lear. Pay attention to the names of characters, too. They often symbolise more than just the Shakespearan character from which they were derived–there’s one huge twist near the end, in particular, which hinges on the name of a character.
The Queens of Innis Lear is rather slow-paced in the first half. To me, it’s strongest from around the 50 or 60% mark up to the 90% mark, where everything proceeds at an accelerated pace hurtling toward the final showdown. For a couple reasons that have not much to do with the writing and everything to do with my personal preferences, I don’t really like the ending, but I understand why Gratton chose to write it that way. The best advice I have is not to get too attached to any of the characters.
“I will be air, and I will be rain, and I will be dust, and I will be free.”
*Thanks to HarperCollins UK and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*