The Queens of Innis Lear
by Tessa Gratton
Published March 27, 2018, by Tor Books
An aging king calls his three daughters together to determine which of them will inherit his throne. To do so, he demands that each daughter describe how her love for him is the greatest. But when his favorite, the youngest, refuses to play the king’s game he disowns her and sets off a series of events that threatens to tear his kingdom apart. So far, so Shakespearean. King Lear veritably oozes off the pages, with many lines sounding like they were sourced directly from the First Folio. For a fan of Shakespeare, this is a feature, not a flaw. Shakespearean pastiche works best when creators hang a lantern on their source. The creator who pretends that King Lear isn’t King Lear runs the risk of sounding stupid rather than clever.
The key to a quality Shakespearean pastiche, then, is to shift an element and see how the play’s world changes. In King Lear, a once great king is diminished by age and impending senility; he causes strife by forcing his daughters to playact at devotion and throws a mad tantrum when his favorite refuses by play by his rules. In The Queens of Innis Lear, it is not age and senility gnawing away at the King Lear’s mind, but his obsession with a star-based religion and the prophecy that tore his family apart. The royal history plays a key role, as well, and features the memory of a woman Shakespeare never spoke of: Lear’s Queen. In Gratton’s work, she is a woman from a faraway land with a dark destiny ahead of her.
Religion plays a minor role in King Lear, but it is vastly important in The Queens of Innis Lear. Much of the unrest on the island of Lear occurs because the king banned the old ways, capped the sacred wells, and turned his eyes toward the cold stars. But the land and her people have not forgotten those old ways, and the trees will not be denied for long. They are a force- and a character- in their own right, pushing the characters down certain roads, or offering magics too irresistible to pass up, often to their own detriment.
But more than anything, The Queens of Innis Lear is about the relationship between the sisters, Gaela, Regan, and Elia. Gaela and Regan are the eldest and far closer to each other in age. They have been plotting and planning together since childhood and will let nothing stand in the way of their ascending to the throne of Lear. Elia, in contrast, wishes only to be a priestess of the star religion their father follows. She has no desire for power or to marry, and simply wishes to love her father and the stars, and find a way to get along with her sisters. But for those whose primary ambition is power, even a sister’s love means little. If Elia were not so much her father’s daughter Regan and especially Gaela might have found a way to love her more. Lear loves Elia best, though, and his eldest daughters have never forgiven him for that, or for the death of their mother.
The Queens of Innis Lear is a slow and brooding book. Its focus is on the characters and what their desires drive them to do. Gratton’s writing is intensely atmospheric, toeing the line of purple prose without stepping over it, an astonishing feat given that this is Gratton’s first adult novel. With less skill, her YA roots might have pushed her to make a grand smattering of overwrought prose in an attempt to make her writing sound ‘artsy’ or elegant. Fortunately, she had enough sense- or a good editor- to know when enough was enough.
Where Gratton fails is in the flashbacks. The book is full of them, taking the reader back in time up to nearly twenty-five years to unnecessarily fill in gaps of character history and in doing so, halts any forward momentum the story had been building. The Queens of Innis Lear is strongest when it focuses on the younger generation as it tries to keep a kingdom together after the previous generation nearly tore it apart. The inclusion of the flashbacks makes it feel like Gratton was either unsure of her ability to convey character history via character interaction, or like she didn’t trust her audience to pick up on the clues she’d laid out.
If the flashbacks don’t drive the reader to distraction, though, The Queens of Innis Lear is an otherwise beautifully crafted story of madness, magic, and power, and how they drive people to turn against even their own families.