Book Review: “Lady Hotspur” (by Tessa Gratton)

Warning: Some spoilers for the book follow.

Judging by Goodreads, this book has, somewhat to my surprise, been ill-received by those who have read it. Perhaps it’s because of the book’s literary basis, or perhaps it’s the particular type of prose that Gratton uses–which, to be sure, is at times a bit baroque, or maybe it’s just that the author is a woman and the world of fantasy can be a bit unforgiving of female voices.

Allow me to be one of the dissenting voices. I found Lady Hotspur to be by turns moving, beautiful, haunting, and terrifying. It captures what is best about the fantasy genre and, what is just as important, it manages to do all of this in one volume rather than several. While there is pleasure to be had in a sprawling, multi-volume fantasy saga, sometimes you just want to read an epic story in one go.

As she did with her earlier book, here Gratton has reimagined the plays that Shakespeare wrote about Henry IV and Henry V (primarily Henry IV Parts One and Two, as well as Henry V). In the novel, Prince Hal is the daughter of Celedrix, a rebel who has taken the throne of Aremoria for herself. Hal’s best friend and lover is the warrior Lady Hotspur, while her opposite number of Banna Mora, the one-time heir to the throne who ultimately conspires with the folk of the nearby island of Innis Lear, particularly Prince Rowan, to both seize the crown for herself and reunite the sundered realms both politically and magically.

Like Shakespeare’s play, the book is primarily about the fraught relationship between Hal and Hotspur, though though here the gender dynamics are flipped and there is no question that their relationship is intensely physical, indeed sexual. Their love for one another is one of the guiding lights of the story, and I truly enjoyed seeing same-sex love celebrated and for these two women to be given a happy ending.

Indeed, one of the things that I enjoyed most about this book was the fact that not only did it focus on women to an extraordinary degree–still a very rare thing in epic fantasy–it repeatedly emphasized that it is the relationships among and between women that are the most important in this world. Again and again, we are shown how the bonds between women are the glue that hold the various realms together. In addition to her complicated relationship with Hotspur, Hal also has a vexed relationship with her mother Celeda and with the knight Ianta (the novel’s equivalent of Falstaff), while Hotspur has to contend with her own divided nature and her torn loyalties. And, for her part, Banna Mora has to decide whether she wants revenge or justice in her pursuit of the throne of Aremoria.

History hangs heavy on this tale, as the events and characters from The Queens of Innis Lear loom in the background, a reminder of the sacrifices and terrors that have taken place in this world. Some characters that occupied that narrative come back to literally haunt those living in the present, though the novel leaves their identities something of an enigma throughout most of the narrative. However, there’s a unique pleasure to be had in trying to figure out exactly what influence the past is having (some reviewers clearly found this to be a frustrating aspect of the book, but I quite liked it).

The third major strand in the novel is the power of prophecy to determine the actions of those in the present. Do any of us have actual agency, or are our actions always predetermined by the faults in our stars? The novel seems to come down somewhere in the middle. While there are paths that we are fated to tread, and while some of those can have world-shattering consequences, we are also presented with numerous times when the characters forge their own path, when they do what they wish rather than what they are fated to do.

Now, it is true that Lady Hotspur, like The Queens of Innis Lear, can be a difficult read at times. However, I don’t think that this is primarily due to the fact that they reimagine Shakespeare for a modern audience, and there are times when the fit is an odd one. The novel also makes Hal’s shift from reprobate prince to warrior prince a bit abruptly, but that’s also one of the aspects of the original plays. It is also true that there is something slightly strange about Gratton’s prose, a slight stilted-ness that might not be everyone’s cup of tea. However, it is also true that she has astonishing powers of description, and the novel is a deeply sensual one.

If I have one major complaint to make about this book, it’s that it didn’t include a map. It’s not just that I love looking at maps–both real and fantastical–but because it’s very difficult to orient yourself in space while reading a book without a map to give you guidance. For the life of me, I still don’t have a firm idea of where the various countries in this book are located, and while this might be acceptable in a regular piece of fiction, for a fantasy novel that is relying on a totally made-up geography it is incredibly disorienting and frustrating.

All told, however, I really enjoyed Lady Hotspur. It is a testament to Gratton’s abilities as an author that she manages to make Shakespeare new and fascinating for a new generation. The fact that her own mother passed away during the course of her writing the book gives Hal’s confronting of her own mother’s impending mortality an extra emotional charge. While Lady Hotspur might be everyone’s cup of tea, I definitely recommend it to those who want an epic fantasy that focuses on women and that gives us characters that we can cheer for, weep with, and celebrate. This book provides all of that and more.

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!