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Review: The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

Nathan’s review of The Queens of Innis Lear

I’m at a bit of a loss to what I even want to say about this book. There was so much I absolutely adored about this book, and yet there was also so much that did not work for me. There were parts where I was swept up in the story, characters, and setting, while there were also other parts that felt like a slog.

Let’s back this review up just a bit while I try and untangle my very complex feelings about this book.

The Queens of Innis Lear is a fantasy retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear. If you are a fan of King Lear, you will already be familiar with the basic premise. An old king tries to decide which of his three daughters will succeed him on the throne, and political chaos and tragedy ensues. The same basis principle is at work here in this book. However, if you have no knowledge of the original King Lear, don’t worry. The story works perfectly well without the little Shakespearian easter eggs that Gratton litters throughout the novel.

There were a lot of really high highs in this book. Probably nothing was better than Gratton’s lush and beautiful prose. Her descriptions of the island nation of Innis Lear were breathtakingly transportive. Gratton’s prose strikes a clear balance between the usages of modern language while evoking a timeless aura of these characters and this plot happening in some kind of “before time”. If you are someone who likes to get swept up in wonderful writing, this book will probably really work for you.

Gratton also uses her prose to construct a well-developed cast of nuanced and complex characters. As the reader I really got a sense of each of the character’s depth of emotions; I understood the intentions of their actions and ultimately why they were making the decisions they did. The three sisters and Ban (the bastard son of an earl from Innis Lear) are all painted as three-dimensional people with histories and emotional scars that dictate their actions. Gratton’s novel explodes with emotion as the characters navigate each other’s tangled political webs. At times the pathos overflows a bit and the characters/plot become a bit melodramatic (in the style of the Shakespearian tragedy), but in the context of the tone Gratton sets it all really works.

Gratton also gets quite a bit of mileage out of the major changes she makes to the King Lear story. Mainly, that the three sisters in this novel are dark-skinned living in a very light-skinned world. Racial politics never becomes a direct or explicit part of the story, but Gratton does a nice job of subtly showing how the main three sisters (and their dark-skinned mother) had to navigate the politics of a world in which their skin color was not the norm. This is not a book about race, and racial injustice is not at its core, but Gratton never ignores the multi-faceted elements of her character’s identity and the world she put them in.

Gratton also imbues her world with magic, wonder, and awe. The Queens of Innis Lear has two primary magic systems – one that is star-based/astrological and an earth based magic system. The magic remains relatively vague and esoteric, but still plays a powerful and important role in the narrative. This is not just King Lear with some fantasy window-dressings; the role of magic, the people’s attitudes towards magic, and the overall cosmological construction of Innis Lear and the wider world are carefully constructed and built throughout the novel.

Speaking of the world-building, I really enjoyed that Gratton kept the story relatively small in its scope. This was a story about a single family, and how they carried on with their baggage and trauma. There are, of course, other important players, but even they are not too numerous (although, as I explain below, the number of POVs became a bit tiresome). Most of the plot takes place on the single island of Innis Lear in just a few locales (with some taking place in a nearby rival nation). Gratton nicely gives the reader the sense of the bigger world beyond Innis Lear. She often names other countries, allies, enemies, etc., but doesn’t feel the need to info-dump about them because they would only detract from the story. I really liked being with this one single family and telling a political story that felt personal and emotional, rather than simply tactical coldness. In this way Gratton exemplifies all of the best emotional beats of something like the succession crisis in House of the Dragon without characters feeling like simply pieces on a chessboard.

The main issue with the book is that while it takes this very narrow focus, it is absolutely hindered by its length. The paperback copy I was reading was nearly 600 pages with relatively small print. There was just not enough story to justify that large page count. A version of this book that was 150 pages shorter would have been a more successful novel. Throughout the book almost every character gets at least one POV chapter, even when those POVs don’t really contribute anything (I felt that the character of Aefa in particular contributed little to the story for how much page time she got, and I’m not sure why Rory really warranted a POV chapter). This issue probably becomes worst in the flashback chapters. Flashback chapters can be used to great effect, but here they just feel like extraneous padding. In almost all cases the scenes that play out in the flashback chapters just repeat things that characters have already told us. And they are played straight; these flashbacks chapters don’t subvert or challenge what the reader has already been told from other perspectives. I found myself skimming large sections of the novel just to move on.

The bloat of the writing was disappointing because there was a great story here about family and politics. However, so much of the impact of the tense climax was muted by my sheer exhaustion as the reader. Rather than tensely waiting for the next thing to happen, I was waiting for the book to just end. The plot wasn’t able to build any real momentum because there was an unnecessary flashback or extraneous POV chapter every time the plot started getting somewhere. Not all books have to be accelerating page turners (there are plenty of wonderful fantasy books out there that aren’t!), but for what Gratton was trying to achieve here both narratively and thematically, we really needed that race up to the end as the politics and family drama reached its peak. In the end, I was disappointed because this ending should have been engaged me so emotionally, and yet it just left me cold.

By no means should you take this review as a recommendation not to read the book, but I rather just wanted to explain that you have to be the right kind of reader in the right kind of mood for this book to work for you. You have to be someone who likes to get swept up in beautiful prose and tense emotions, and be willing to wade in it for a really long time with little plot progression.

Concluding Thoughts: The Queens of Innis Lear is a beautifully written and emotional political tragedy that is hampered by its bloated length and poor pacing. Fans of lush prose and complex characters will find a lot to cherish here, but this book is not for anyone looking for a tense political read.

 

Thank you for reading my review of The Queens of Innis Lear!

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