“Hal was not yet a prince when she fell in love with Lady Hotspur, but she would be within the hour.”
So begins Tessa Gratton’s latest masterpiece, unapologetically queer and brimming with vicious promise. Lady Hotspur is a companion novel to The Queens of Innis Lear, but it picks up generations later and stands alone. To call it a reimagining of part one of Shakespeare’s Henry IV is only part of its breadth—it functions in conversation, investigating war, love, and trauma, and Gratton’s deliberate genderfuckery and queerness deepens the project. The result is an epic, compulsively readable triumph that is not only an immersive addition to the canon of historical action adventure fantasy, but a reclamation of the genre and the history, a restoration: a revolution in and of itself.
King Rovassos of Aremoria exiled his niece, Celeda Bolinbroke, ten years ago, on the false word of his lover. Celeda’s daughter, Calepia, known as Hal, lived as a ward of the king for that decade, alongside his chosen heir, Banna Mora. Celeda gathered allies and returned to vanquish Rovassos, staking her claim as Queen of Aremoria. Mora’s claim was not by blood, and so it was weak in the face of the rebels. The fiercest of the rebel allies was Lady Hotspur, born Isarna Perseria. The lives of Hal, Hotspur, and Mora soon become desperately and dangerously entangled.
Because Hal is a rogue, a young soldier bred to skirmish and flirt, and the mantle of prince weighs unsettlingly heavy on her shoulders. She received it the same day she met Lady Hotspur, and so they are forever linked, want and duty dueling within her. She prefers to fight for her mother’s rule rather than to take on governance herself, to drink and banter with her Lady Knights—and Hal’s main priority, once it’s clear the attraction is incredibly mutual, swiftly becomes spending as much time between Hotspur’s legs as possible.
But Hal’s ill preparation for her title begins to grate on Hotspur, on her mother—and her childhood best friend. Banna Mora had been a prince, named Rovassos’ heir seven years prior as he had chosen not to father children, preferring the company of men. Hal had fought for her, pledged her sword to Mora, and now Hal wears her title. A decade of friendship, of kinship, proves not powerful enough to staunch Mora’s desire to reclaim her crown and her kingdom, to do what’s best for Aremoria. When she’s bested in battle and taken hostage on the proximate, magic island of Innis Lear, an unexpected opportunity arises.
Upon this island, a witch and wizard have been honing their powers. There are deep prophecies stirring, centered on a lion, a wolf, and a dragon—Hal, Hotspur, and Banna Mora—and the stars they must follow, or rewrite.
Take the archetypes of roguish, irresponsible, womanizing young prince and dedicated, battle-ready knight—make them women, who fall in love with each other? Take strange, wise, star-gazing forest witches and make them men, who fall in love with each other? Already, I’m signed up, signed, sealed, delivered, take my money. But Gratton expands on this premise, on these characters, on the very nature of ambition, destiny, and justice. They are no archetypes, they are gamechangers, richer and more dynamic for Gratton’s skilled character work. Gratton doesn’t just change their genders, but uses her reimaginings of Shakespeare’s work to craft expansive lore all her own.
This is a rich fantasy, powered by ambitious, passionate women knights and princes, and soft, romantic witch men. By consciously reframing both Shakespearean and contemporary gender dynamics, Gratton asks us to experience the complexities confronted by her women characters in positions of power, the potency of her men characters relegated to prophet or heir-giver. Her writing is not binary, all her central characters manifest ambition and desire, strive for power and justice, but gender and genre conventions are purposefully upended with this telling. A familiar story is subverted, remade vibrant and fresh. And there is tragedy here—it’s Henry IV—but it’s handled deftly, with purpose, tenderness, and clever twists.
Lady Hotspur features a handful of POV characters, but the predominant voices are Hal, Hotspur, and Mora, and their messy, shifting relationships and loyalties serve as a throughline. The island of Innis Lear has a voice of its own too, and with each perspective, Gratton builds an intricate, intoxicatingly immersive world.
If you’ve read and loved the tension and triumphs of Henry IV but ached for it to say something hopeful rather than depressing—you’re going to love this book. If you’ve read The Queens of Innis Lear and, like I did, eagerly awaited to return to Gratton’s elegant prose and enchanted premise—you’re going to love this book. It rewards readers of Queens, but certainly stands alone. And if you’ve not read a word of either, but you want the fun, sex, intrigue, battles, and magic of certain popular action fantasy narratives except full of badass ladies and queer folks and absolutely no exploitative sexist trauma—yeah, you’re going to love this book.
Tessa Gratton created an absolute vindication. She knows the canon, she shattered it, and stitched the pieces back together with queer, feminist love to make it something even more beautiful and brilliant. Yes, this book, as is Queens of Innis Lear, is long. So are hundreds of other famous, favorite, epic fantasies. And I reveled in the length of Lady Hotspur. Let it expand, let this gorgeous world Gratton crafted breathe, stretch, flex! Not a scene, not a sentence is out of place, as she builds and releases tensions and motivations, as she develops her world, as she leads us to one of the most fulfilling climaxes—one of the most rewarding reimaginings—I have ever had the sheer joy of reading, because as Gratton re-envisions the narrative, so do her characters. Hal Bolinbroke so fiercely wants to rewrite her own story into one in which she is worthy of both Aremoria, and Lady Hotspur.
Give me hundreds of pages of shrewd, calculating, battle-ready women, navigating their destinies, falling fiercely in love. Give me a universe full of prophecy, ghosts, and betrayal, and show me the queer folks who have to balance their own desires with the good of the world. Let them wrangle, and let them triumph. Let them be the heroes, let them write their own stories. Let those stories take up all the space they can, I want every detail, I’m hungry for every word.
This is Shakespearean epic at its bloodiest, most haunted, most tormented, all the while brimming with earnestness and love. This is a paean to the powerful, complex women who have always existed, here given the spotlight they deserve. Lady Hotspur is a triumphant remaking, purposeful, magnificent, and wise.
Maya Gittelman is a queer Pilipinx-Jewish diaspora writer and poet. Their cultural criticism has been published on The Body is Not An Apology and The Dot and Line. Formerly the events and special projects manager at a Manhattan branch of Barnes & Noble, she now works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel.