The Queens of Innis Lear is the latest novel from Tessa Gratton (whose past works include fantasy modern Norse America series Gods of New Asgard as well as The Blood Keeper), currently a writer on the acclaimed serial Tremontaine from Serial Box. The Queens of Innis Lear is a standalone epic fantasy, that rare bird of a single volume story—and it’s a long one.
There have been many fantasy treatments of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, several on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and even one or two (I believe) on Coriolanus, but this is the first novel I recall to deliver a fantastical take on The Tragedy of King Lear.
Spoilers will follow.
It’s remarkably faithful to its source material, save for a handful of structural innovations—including permitting its Cordelia-figure (Elia) to refuse marriage with its King-of-France analogue (Morimaros, king of Aremoria), and to survive the story’s conclusion—and a shifting of motivations that makes it feel more emotionally grounded and relatable than Shakespeare’s original play. It has also, of course, included explicitly fantastical elements. Yet its faithfulness means that The Queens of Innis Lear is entirely a tragedy in the classical sense: a story in which every character is either destroyed by their flaws (though their intentions were, for the most part, as much creative as destructive); torn between incompatible loyalties; and/or denied happiness by a combination of circumstance and their own choices. It’s a book filled with characters who grind themselves into ruin through their own decisions and ambitions, their refusal to speak honestly and their conviction that they know best, and it is a long book. (The hardback could inflict serious blunt force trauma.)
Innis Lear is an island ruled by an aging king. The eponymous Lear took the island’s name on his late accession to the throne. A star priest before his elevation, he believes in the purity of star prophecy, and has capped off the rootwater wells that form part of the island’s earth magic, denigrating the language of trees and any kind of magic or knowledge that doesn’t come from the stars. But the earth magic is part of the rite of accession to the kingship and part of the connection that keeps the island strong and healthy.
Lear has three daughters. The eldest, Gaela, is a warrior. The middle daughter, Regan, is a witch. These two are sworn to support each other, though they are married to ambitious rivals (Regan loves her husband; Gaela appears to despise hers), and to rule Lear together when their father dies. They both blame Lear for the death of their mother (foretold by a star prophecy) when Gaela was sixteen. The youngest daughter, Elia, is unmarried. She is her father’s favourite, for she has studied the stars with him. Her sisters dislike and distrust her on account of their father’s favouritism.
These three are major viewpoint characters. So too is Ban, the bastard son of an earl, despised by Lear for his stars, denigrated by his father for his bastardy, in love with Elia in their childhood or early teenage years, sent away to his cousins in Aremoria to separate him from Elia and now in the service of Morimaros. Ban is a witch, a sorcerer who speaks to trees and is answered by them, and who is driven by never have been loved enough by anyone to have been chosen by them for his own sake, rather than for what use he could be. His emotional wounds and his choice of how to respond to them push him to betraying everyone who ever trusted him.
And Lear himself, of course, is mad. He intends to divide his kingdom between his daughters, but when Elia will not tell him how much she loves him, he exiles her and divides Innis Lear between Gaela and Regan. This begins a many-sided conflict that can only end in death for most of the participants.
The Queens of Innis Lear is an atmospheric novel, well-written and well-characterised. Its prose is clear and elegant. But it’s long, and its measured pacing builds to the futile, inevitable destruction of most of its characters’ hopes. I found myself increasing discouraged by the act of reading about people making poor choices out of a lack of compassion or willingness to compromise, or out of pain—for this describes several of the characters. Ultimately, I can’t say that I liked The Queens of Innis Lear, as a novel. But it’s still an interesting work.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.