Gratton offered everything I desire in a book and more
“But in the Third Kingdom a strong mother-line was respected, and for a decade now Celeda had gathered allies and woven her plans, always knowing she’d never be invited home. Knowing if she was to return, she would have to seize back her legacy.”
Tessa Gratton had my attention as an incredible novelist with the first book I read by her, The Queen of Innis Lear. As a huge Shakespeare enthusiast, a lover of female powerhouses in lead roles, and a devourer of books that are epic in scope, that have nuanced storylines, and of course exquisite prose, Gratton offered everything I desire in a book and more.
The Queen of Innis Lear was a remarkable book that definitively convinced me to read everything that Gratton writes. So there was no question I would be signing up for the follow-up, entitled Lady Hotspur.
I was very eager to read it, and it was the first book I selected for my #FebruarySheWrote reads, where I will be reading exclusively female authors who use the pronouns she/her. I got started a little early (late January), in my excitement to see what Gratton would do next, and because with such an ample book as the opening read, I needed that head-start to digest it, and still fit all my #FebruarySheWrote books into the month.
This novel is no less lengthy than The Queens of Innis Lear, Gratton’s previous Shakespearean fantasy retelling, set in the same universe. Yet, for me, while I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in this duology, Lady Hotspur is even a cut above the marvellous The Queens of Innis Lear. This second novel is around 600 pages of simply glorious prose, an intricate plot, startling magic, love, passion, intrigue and betrayal, and characters so wondrous you will immediately miss them when you turn the last page.
In Lady Hotspur, Gratton is as reverent to Shakespeare’s original work, Henry IV, Part I, as she was to the famous Bard’s King Lear in her The Queens of Innis Lear. Yet she makes everything feel new, fresh, modern, while maintaining the classic feel of a famous literary masterpiece.
As the passage at the start of this review, taken from early in the novel, indicates, the plot centres, just like Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I (and part of the preceding play in chronological order, Richard II) around rebellion that causes turmoil and sets dramatic events in motion.
“This is how kings die, she thought, again and again. Betrayed.”
But Gratton swaps most of Shakespeare’s male leads for females, save for King Rovassos of Aremoria, who stands in for the ineffectual and tragic figure King Richard II of England. The powerful Celeda (compared to Henry Bolinbroke, later King Henry IV), Celepia ‘Hal’ Bolingbroke (Prince Hal Bolinbroke who goes onto to become King Henry V), Isarna ‘Hotspur’ Perseria – known as the Wolf of Aremoria (Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy), her mother Caratica Persy (Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland), Isarna’s aunt Vindomata, Duke of Mercia (Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester), Princess Banna Mora, heir of Rovassos (Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March), knight Ianta Oldcastle (Sir John Falstaff) are all women, and partial composites of the male historical figures.
Like in the Shakespeare plays, Rovassos banishes Celeda. But with the help of supporters such as her daughter Hal, Hotspur, Mata Blunt, Caractica, and Vidomata, the ambitious Celeda returns to Aremoria and overthrows Rovassos. Yet Banna Mora, the disinherited heir, does not take losing out on the throne lightly. At one time, she was the Crown Prince of Aremoria, and the new Crown Prince Hal was once her loyal retainer and friend, serving Banna Mora as part of the Lady Knights, the royal personal bodyguard, of which Ianta was also a prominent member.
Hotspur too, was once a dear friend and vassal of Banna Mora, and Hotspur is the most feared warrior in the land. Banna Mora eventually falls into the hands of the royal family of Innis Lear, but marries into that family, and comes in line to rule in that kingdom. But Mora is not satisfied with only Innis Lear, and dreams of uniting both stolen Aremoria and Innis Lear under her rule.
The key to victory is having the generalship, allies, and forces of Hotspur on Mora’s side. Hotspur, meanwhile, has fallen in love with Hal, and Hal with her – a great twist Gratton throws in to completely change the nature of the retelling. Celeda similarly needs Hotspur on her side, and Hal’s relationship with the love of her life will be put to the test, because of all the tension surrounding Mora’s aspiration to rule Aremoria, versus Hal’s new position as heir to Aremoria.
Just as the Bard purported with his portrayal of Hal, Gratton paints Crown Prince Calepia as one who is all about hanging out with her rowdier friends – led by Ianta – carousing, drinking, and avoiding facing her princely responsibilities. The aptly named “Prince of Riot” holds a shadow court of hangers-on, lovers, and those who encourage her to keep cavorting in style.
This contrasts to the austerity, discipline, and suspicion hanging over the real court of Hal’s mother, because, as history shows us, usurpers can never completely rest easy. Hal was easily my favourite character, and her conflicted feelings about ascending the throne, her natural charm and wit, and her desire to keep Mora in the fold, have Hotspur as her consort, and yet stay loyal to her mother’s ideals, make her extremely fascinating.
There are plenty of extremely well drawn and engrossing male characters in the book. Rowan Lear, Connley Errigal, their love affair, and the jealously of the mysterious Ashling ghost towards Rowan was one of my favourite subplots. Charm is an intriguing figure, and the quirky wizard, whose identity was a great reveal, was a blast of a character.
But this book is all about the magnificent women, and they are intelligent, charismatic, fierce, wonderfully conflicted, and kept me glued to every page. Even the more minor female characters, such as Vatta and Nova, stole plenty of scenes. The titular Hotspur is a force of nature, and while as noted Hall was my fav, I truly enjoyed Hotspur’s arc, and wanted to see if, as in Shakespeare, she would finally come to sword-points with Hal, despite the love for one another that Gratton has added in her retelling, to ramp the stakes of such a potential show-down even higher.
The contrast of the elemental, earthy, grounded magic, and casual, rather informal monarchy of Innis Lear with the pragmatism, more stern militaristic culture, and legacy-bound royalty of Aremoria was exceptionally done by Gratton. The esteemed Morimaros, patriarch of the Aremoria royals, looms ever-present as one ideal as a ruler, compared to the legend of the wild and unpredictable wizard who founded Innis Lear.
I loved the call-backs to The Queen of Innis Lear, with the spectre of the three sisters who nearly tore the realms apart – warrior Gaela, schemer Regan, and dreamer Elia – still haunting the new characters about a century later.
Finally, in my praise for the book, we cannot talk about Gratton without specifically talking about her astounding prose. Let’s just admire one of my favourites:
“The sky glowed with stars: bright, silver, white and pink and yellow, pinpricks of illusory colour, a rainbow shattered and tossed into billions of points. There the half-moon, a chunk of magic that hung, only the saints knew how, so near one could count its gray freckles and pockmarked shadows. Hotspur took a deep breath, her body filling up with a sensation she hardly knew how to name: awe, peace, longing. Love, maybe.”
I am voracious for every word that Gratton pens, because she writes in such a lovely, detailed, lyrical style that is more than worthy of the legacy of Shakespeare. But Gratton’s book is no mere copy of the Bard.
In creating a masterpiece of her own, with #OwnVoices, injecting magic, unique characters, and gender inversion based on the writing of the icon that is Shakespeare, Gratton once more weaves her spell around the reader, drawing us into her world of prophecy, divided loyalties, and destiny.
With evocative, edgy prose, engaging drama, and overall a dreamy feel to her books, Gratton has me hooked, and I will surely be coming back for more. Five plus stars for Lady Hotspur!