Book Review: “The Queens of Innis Lear” (by Tessa Gratton)

I’ve been meaning to read this book for quite a while now. I first saw in the new release section at B&N and though that it sounded like a compelling read.

Boy, I was not wrong.

The Queens of Innis Lear is a high fantasy reimagining of Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear. Lear is, in this tale, the king of the isle of Innis Lear, utterly devoted to the worship of the stars, so much so that he has forbidden the old forms of magic that once gave the island life. When he command his three daughters–Gaela, Regan, and Elia–to tell him how much they love him, he is enraged when his youngest doesn’t flatter him and he banishes her from his kingdom. In doing so, he sets in motion a chain of events that will tear both the island and his family apart.

The book crackles with a rather strange poetic mystery, and I found myself drawn in with every page. Gratton has a true gift with her prose, one unlike almost anything else I’ve read recently. It’s at times beautiful and yet also unsettling, a fitting means of conveying the profound unease that drives the novel’s plot. Just as Innis Lear struggles under the tyrannical rule of Lear and his fanatical devotion to the stars, so the very prose of the novel struggles under the titanic forces of personal loyalty and betrayal as each of the major characters tries to break free of the ties of destiny and obligation that constantly circumscribe their actions.

The novel is a very dark retelling, which is appropriate, considering that the original play is a tragedy. All of the major characters are significantly flawed, some more than others. In fact, I frequently found myself disliking most, if not all, of the major characters at some point, and while some might find this a bit of a turnoff, I actually found it refreshing. The world that Gratton has created is a harsh and unforgiving one, and this is especially true of Innis Lear. One of the key conflicts of the novel is between the cold destiny of the stars and the more earth-driven magic that is native to the isle, and each of the characters struggles (often with fatal results) with some aspect of this dichotomy.

The women of the novel are, it should be said, incredibly powerful, though each manifests it somewhat differently. Gaela, the eldest, attempts to forge herself into a weapon with which she can rule the isle as its king, while her sister Regan (to whom she is bound by ties deeper than they share with anyone else) is more attuned to the powers of the island. And Elia, once her father’s favourite, must try to strike a balance between the competing forces of her life. What I found particularly compelling about the novel was the fact that all three of them are distinctly non-white, since their mother was from a part of this fictional world that is non-European.

There is no question, however, that the most compelling character is Ban. Like his Shakespearean predecessor, Ban is tortured because of his status as a bastard. Whereas his father has always lavished his love and attention on Ban’s younger brother Rory, Ban has always wanted to be something greater. As clever and crafty as he is, and as talented as he is at harnessing the power of magic, he is always condemned to play a secondary role in the life of those around him. Even his mother, Brona the witch, seems to have other priorities. Like the greatest tragic characters of Shakespeare, Ban is fundamentally broken, and his tragedy is that he realizes this and can do little or nothing to change it. As a result, he sees himself as something of an agent of creative destruction, and while we may rightly regard many of his actions as despicable and sometimes cruel, he does have something of a point.

The world-building throughout the novel decent. One gets the sense that this is a fully fleshed-out world, but much of it remains off-stage. For much of the novel, the action takes place both on the isle of Innis Lear and the country of Aremoria (analogues of the original play’s England and France). Though there are mentions of other countries such as the Third Kingdom (the birthplace of Lear’s wife Dalat and Kayo the Oak Earl), there isn’t much said about them.

In that sense, The Queens of Innis Lear is driven much more by its characters. It’s a searing look at the consequences of fanaticism and unbending adherence to principles over people. Each of the characters, from the highest to the lowest, finds himself or herself caught up in forces that they can barely name or control, each weighed down by the pasts of family and of nation. And, while the novel has a substantially happier ending than the play upon which it is based, we are still left feeling a sense of melancholia at how much has been lost, and we are left to wonder whether Elia will ever fully recover from the destruction that has torn apart everything that she held dear.

The brilliance of The Queens of Innis Lear lies in its ability to seamlessly weave together the Shakespearean and fantastic elements into a coherent whole. One can see the glimmers of the original play in many aspects of it, even as one can marvel at the way that Gratton has bent it into a new shape. This says a great deal not only about the strengths of the novel on its own, but also about Gratton as a storyteller. To be able to take such a famous story and remake it into something terrifying and visceral and beautiful is the mark of a very gifted writer indeed.

It’s already been announced that Gratton has written another fantasy reimagining of Shakespeare, titled Lady Hotspur. Given how much I enjoyed this novel, I can’t wait to what Gratton has in store for us!