Title: The Queens of Innis Lear (2018)
Author: Tessa Gratton
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Read: 7th – 17th June 2018
Genre: fantasy; retellings
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
“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.” (Synopsis from the publisher)
Marketed as a King Lear retelling, it’s easy to write off this book as just another Shakespeare retelling but to do so would be doing a disservice to Tessa Gratton’s canny dissection of the heart of the narrative of King Lear and his three daughters in order to create her own unique-feeling fantasy world which very much stands on its own merit. Questions of fate and prophecy vs. forging your own path are interrogated keenly throughout the story, with a different opinion on the matter characterised by each of the king’s daughters, Gaela, Reagan, and Elia. The question of a sense of responsibility and duty to the natural world, to your kingdom, to your lord, and to your blood relations is also deeply entwined into every twist and turn of this book’s plot, proving that The Queens of Innis Lear does indeed have something to say that, for me, is sometimes brushed over in similar fantasy narratives I have read recently. I will say that, at first, it took me a while to truly get into the novel due to the frequent use of flashbacks, character-switching, and setting-switching, but I was in a much better position to appreciate the novel once I had drawn myself up a very simple family tree/relationships diagram to keep track of the cast of characters that populate The Queens of Innis Lear.
“Rain is not always a storm. The wind does not always howl. Sometimes death is quiet, or love is peaceful. There are little things.”
The setting was extremely vivid, at least in terms of the natural world around the court and the magic that is derived from the very roots of the island. For lack of a better expression, this book felt earthy, any time that the natural elements were described they were depicted in such a gritty and grounded manner that I could almost feel the mud underneath my feet and smell the electric hint of thunder on the air of a muggy night. The character that seems most in touch with the natural environment, Ban aka “the Fox”, likewise seems at his most real and honest when he is immersed (quite literally) in nature. His earthiness morphs throughout the novel as he must become part-spy and is required to play a different part; with this, the idea of the honest, earthy, and natural is sharply contrasted to the more cerebral and political machinations associated with the kingdom’s courts and its nobility. It seems to be a constant warring within Ban as he is torn between his natural, instinctive urges and his sense of loyalty and duty to Morimaros of Aremoria who has always treated him as someone above his natural station as a bastard-born son of an Earl.
“‘It’s unnatural, child against parent.’
‘Parent against child, you mean?’ “
As far as the principle characters go, I was not much a fan of Lear, but considering that his daughters are the focus of the novel, this likely comes as little surprise. Because of the play, I think the author and the reader’s natural inclination is to “side with” the youngest daughter, Elia, and to sympathise to her plight as the king’s once-favourite who then is practically disowned simply because she refuses to publically declare her love for her father. However, I appreciated that Tessa Gratton’s Lear daughters are all given equal weight in the narrative – through changing perspectives in each chapter, we are allowed to see the motivations and ambitions of all of the daughters, and thereby build up a sense of understanding of each of their characters, even if you may not necessarily wish to “side with” them or their cause. For my part, I was surprised by the extent to which I sympathised with Gaela, the militaristic-minded and hard-hearted daughter who has refused to be a servant to pre-destiny and the stars and instead grabbed the bull by the horns, striving to actively control her own fate, her own body, and her own sense of identity. Placed in direct contrast to her more sensitive, emotional, and (ultimately) easily likeable younger sister, Elia, Gaela proves an interesting exercise in characterisation that I feel showcased Tessa Gratton’s passion for the legend of King Lear.
“You won this war even before I knew there was a battle to be had.”
To spare a moment of gushing, I also fell just a little bit in love with Morimaros, not only in his relationship with Elia but also in his friendship with Ban. Out of all the suitors and spouses of the various ladies of Lear, Morimaros aka Mars was the one who felt most “worthy” to me. Distrustful of prophecy and magic which is the lifeblood of King Lear and Elia’s relationship, Mars instead is painted as serious and often analytical, as a contrast to the more airy-fairy earth magic and star prophecies associated with the likes of Ban. Although he is a king of Aremoria (the neighbouring kingdom) and thereby automatically considered a key player in the grab for the Lear throne, he always seems to play down any sense of his social position unless absolutely necessary – he wears the same uniform as his soldiers and isn’t often distinguishable as the king and ruler of the same people until he puts back on his metaphorical and literal crown. I thought the exploration of his character’s feelings towards magic, prophecy, and predestiny (alongside his budding relationship with Elia) was intriguing, and (on a more shallow level) his characterisation was deeply attractive to me.
“Everyone connected to a crown played games, that was the nature of it, so Elia only needed to discern who played them for power and who played them for love.”
In conclusion, The Queens of Innis Lear was a thoughtful novel that took the original setup of King Lear that readers may be familiar with and used it to explore deeply relatable ideas about, variously, the sense of loyalty, the repercussions of the loss of a family member, and taking control of your own life against circumstance and pre-destiny. It explores not only father-daughter relationships but also that of sisters/siblings, investigating the latent tension behind these relationships that may be slave to circumstance and to the past as much as to anything in the future that is foretold by the stars of your birth.
“No one thing keeps Innis Lear alive or its heart beating! That is not love! That is selfishness. That is pretending we are all only one thing. Only a star, only a woman, only a bastard. You’re more than that, and I am, too: a woman and daughter of a foreign queen and a star priest. I’m all of that. Take one piece away and the rest shifts and changes, just like… just like this island, or any land.”
Thank you to Harper Voyager/Harper Collins UK for kindly providing me with an eARC of the book via NetGalley – I greatly appreciate the opportunity to read and review titles prior to their release, but this does not affect my overall opinion or review of the book itself.
I actually listened to most of this on audiobook, as narrated by Cassandra Harwood so if you’re finding its length daunting, I recommend trying out the audiobook. It proved to be a very compelling and atmospheric listen thanks to Harwood’s excellent narration.