The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

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Hiu

I received an e-ARC from the publisher, HarperVoyager, through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

What to say about The Queens of Innis Lear?

This is a book based on Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, King Lear, though it is not a book that is defined by that play. I must admit that I haven’t an intimate knowledge of King Lear, but I know enough about the play to recognise some departures from the “source material” — and I use that term very loosely since this book is entirely its own story.

The most obvious of these departures is the fact that this book is set in the harsh, magical land of Innis Lear rather than England. Innis Lear is an island ruled by two magics: that of the earth and trees, and that of the stars. King Lear has forsaken the magic of the island in favour of that of the stars, cutting off the magical rootwater wells that give the people their connection to the earth and trees.

Lear believes in his star prophecies with a religious fervour, allowing them to guide his life and dictate how he should treat people based on the stars at their birth. A star prophecy foretold that Lear’s wife would die on the day of their eldest daughters 16th birthday… and that prophecy was fulfilled.

Understandably, this had quite the impact on the king’s relationship with his children.

The book follows the stories of Lear’s three daughters — as well as a bastard wizard, a fool’s daughter, and a king — as their mad father looks to give up his throne.

In a lot of books the antagonists are antagonistic even when we read from their point of view. We are constantly aware that they are the villain, and so we very rarely get a chance to truly see things from their perspective.

This is absolutely not the case in Innis Lear.

Every character here is the hero of their own story. Every character has their own hopes, ambitions, vulnerabilities, flaws, and personality. Tessa Gratton was able to make me feel sympathetic for all of them – even those I didn’t like. This is multi-POV fantasy done right. In fact, I’d go as far to say that this is one of the best uses of multi-POV storytelling that I’ve ever seen, to the extent that while reading, I didn’t really want to see anyone come out on top, because I knew that it would be at the expense of someone else.

This is a story about love, when you get right down to it. An exploration of love in all its forms — which are not always as happy and joyful as you might expect. Obsessive love, the loving of one thing over another, the fanatical love of religion, all-inclusive and ever expanding love, love from a position of power, and the denial of love where it should be given.

But with love comes loss. And with loss comes hurt, pain, and rage. Each of our characters deal with these emotions in their own way, and we are lucky enough to be pulled along for the ride.

In the other reviews I’ve seen for this book, there has a lot of praise for the prose. It is beautiful, if you are a fan of long, flowing descriptions. The author really knows how to verbally paint a scene. But what really impressed me about this book was the dialogue.

The dialogue in The Queens of Innis Lear is absolutely world class. It burns at times with emotion and passion, breathing life, fire, and personality into each of the characters.

I should mention that this is a story that takes a while to immerse yourself in. The story seems a little awkward at first as it tries to find itself. For the first third of the book, I wasn’t really sure that I was enjoying myself. But at some point the current of the story was enough to sweep me off my feet, and then I was racing down the river of one of the finest explorations of character I’ve ever read.


 

Sara

Sharade

I received an e-ARC from the publisher, Tor, through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Queens of Innis Lear is a fantasy retelling of the shakespearian tragedy King Lear. I will first confess that I knew the play by name only, so I had no idea of what happens in the original work. Therefore, I am going to talk about the story itself, not its value as a retelling.

King Lear has long been obsessed with the prophecies told by the stars, and has neglected the dying earth magic of his island. His house is divided; his two elder daughters despise both him and their younger sister, his favourite, a stars priestess. When the time comes to hand over his crown, Lear is once again guided by the stars in his decision, with dire consequences.

The story is told through multiple points of view and with the occasional flashback. It allows for a better understanding of the key players’ motives and backgrounds, which enhances what I see as the book’s main strength: the characters’ complexity.

Gaela Lear is the king’s firstborn. She’s been trained as a solider, and is solely focused on martial pursuits and her younger sister, Regan, with whom she has a special bond. The two consider the Innis Lear throne as their birthright, and have no patience for their father and younger sister’s star readings. Gaela and Regan are formidable, unyielding, but they also have vulnerabilities we get to explore in their respective pov chapters. Gaela never truly recovered from her mother’s death, and Regan suffers deeply from her inability to carry a child to term.

The youngest sister, Elia, is her father’s daughter, shaped by his obsessions and smothered by his love. When her father turns his back on her, she has to reinvent herself. She is ever-loyal, even after the betrayals, even while grieving. Her quiet strength and empowered character arc made me root for her the most.

Ban the Fox is her childhood friend. He’s also the bastard son of an earl, and was sent away to a neighbouring kingdom when the king realised how close he was to Elia. Ban is an extremely complex character: he harbours warring desires and loyalties, and the “taint” of his illegitimate birth seeded a strong bitterness within him. He is wizard, close to the island’s roots, able to communicate with its elements.

Other main characters include King Morimaros, who loves Elia but also wants to invade her beloved island; Aefa, the young princess’ close friend; and Brona, Ban’s mother and a powerful witch. I feel like I should add Innis Lear to the list: the island plays a decisive role in spurring the characters forward.

I have already mentioned how complex and nuanced the characters are — it’s also the case for their relationships. Love, envy, sacrifice, resentment, loyalty,…We get to delve into these multi-facetted links between our protagonists.

The themes explored are interesting as well; obviously we have what I assume to be shakespearian hijinks: complicated relationship with fathers and between siblings, reluctant leadership, fate versus free will…But there is also this idea of balance; how a single obsession can be destructive, how worshipping the remote stars is not enough when the magic of the earth is dying off.

The prose is poignantly beautiful. More than a few quotes were powerful and intense, and I admit to tearing up a little bit.

The book progresses slowly — it took me a while before I could truly get into it — but it was worth it to see the characters gain in depth, to follow as tragedy unfolds.

In short, I really enjoyed The Queens of Innis Lear and would recommend you give it a try, especially if you are a Shakespeare fan and curious about a retelling with fantasy elements. I would also recommend it if you like:

  • Political scheming.
  • Complex characters with multi-layered relationships.
  •  Strong, nuanced female characters with true agency. And in general, complex characters you can’t help but sympathise with.
  • Beautiful and evocative prose.

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