book review: The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton




THE QUEENS OF INNIS LEAR by Tessa Gratton
★★★☆☆
Tor, 2018


The Queens of Innis Lear is a fantasy retelling of King Lear, focusing on the young generation characters (primarily Cordelia, Goneril, Regan, and Edmund) in a fictional kingdom called Innis Lear. It starts off as a faithful adaptation (think Lear but with magic)–the titular King is abdicating the throne, and he makes a shocking choice to split the crown equally between his three daughters, provided that they pass the test he sets out for them: to each declare that they love him more than their sisters. Goneril (Gaela, in Gratton’s novel) and Regan (still Regan), manipulative and self-serving, both pass his test, but his youngest and most loyal daughter, Cordelia (Elia), refuses to participate and is banished.

To say I love this play is an understatement (hi, if you’re new here, King Lear is my favorite play) and I’m finding it nearly impossible to untangle my thoughts on how I feel about this as a novel from how I feel about it as a retelling, so we’re just going to go into an aggressive amount of detail and hope something coherent materializes. Mild spoilers forthcoming (mostly about the narrative roles of the characters within the novel, not about specific plot points).

Tonally and thematically, Tessa Gratton accesses a lot of what makes Lear so special and I found that I mostly enjoyed my reading experience for that alone. I always say that Lear is a simultaneously cosmic and intimate play, concerned both with Nature and human nature, and the way Gratton literalizes these themes into her magic system and her worldbuilding is done tremendously well. The writing too has a rich, indulgent quality that suits the tone of the book; it’s slowly paced and thoughtful, which felt appropriate to the story, though I imagine others may get bored early on without a love of Lear driving you forward.

Though, that love of Lear (along with how intimately well I know this play) did end up being a double-edged sword. Gratton had my investment from the very first page without really needing to earn it, and that certainly helped me devour this 600 page book in a little over a week. But on the other hand, I started to become more and more frustrated with the ways in which Gratton engaged with this play.

First is a rather specific annoyance, that luckily only occurred four or five times, but it was jarring enough that I have to mention it. The first half or two thirds of this novel follow the plot of Lear very closely, to the point where entire scenes from the play were acted out in this book. In theory that’s not something that bothers me; what does bother me is Gratton taking word-for-word dialogue from the play and modernizing it so I felt like I was reading No Fear Shakespeare. 

Here are a couple of direct side-by-side comparisons so you can see what I mean. Gratton’s sentences are first, Shakespeare’s are second:

“He has always loved Astore rather more than Connley.”
“I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.”

“Nothing will come from nothing. Try again, daughter.”
“Nothing can come of nothing. Speak again.”

“I cannot heave my heart into my mouth, Father. I love you… as I should love you, being your daughter, and always have. You know this.”
“Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/ My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty/ According to my bond; no more nor less.”

“It is only a note from my brother, and I’ve not finished reading it. What I’ve read so far makes me think it’s not fit for you to see.” 
“I beseech you sir, pardon me. It is a letter from my brother that I have not all o’er-read; and for so much as I have perus’d, I find it not fit for your o’erlooking.”

It’s this but it would go on for entire conversations. Here’s the thing: this is pointless and distracting and when you go up against Shakespeare on a sentence by sentence level, you’re going to lose every time. 

Now, let’s get into the characters, because that’s where my real problem with this book lies.

I found Gratton’s portrayal of the Edmund character (Ban) endlessly frustrating. You could see her bending over backward to humanize Edmund, making these minor, pointless adjustments (Ban being older than his legitimate brother rather than younger, meaning his bastardy is the only thing standing in the way of his inheritance; Gloucester [Errigal] insisting that Edgar [Rory] inherit even after his alleged betrayal of his father) to amp up the reader’s sympathy, but frankly, a lot of Edmund’s charm was lost in the process. Edmund is my favorite character and I know I’m not alone in holding that opinion: the reason people love Edmund is because of his complexity and contradictions; he’s already deeply human in the play and I felt that Gratton flattened that out of him in an attempt to make his transgressions to come from a play of moral purity.

The parallel/inversion between Edmund and Cordelia in the play is fascinating to me–both youngest children, both loved by their fathers, one good, one evil, their fates intertwined in a chilling way. That Gratton chose to explore this connection was an exciting choice for me, but I felt that turning it into a romance added nothing, and in fact lost quite a bit, especially when it came at the narrative expense of what I think a lot of readers find to be a much more compelling dynamic; that between Ban and Morimaros (the King of France figure). (That’s another thing. This book had every opportunity to be explicitly queer, but there were only ever hints and whispers of queerness on the page, which I found frustrating.) 

If I were to detail every single character-related annoyance I had we’d be here for a while, so here are some other highlights: I felt that Edgar (Rory) was underutilized and misrepresented when he was on the page. Aefa is the single most pointless character I have read in anything, ever, and the fact that her POV chapters weren’t cut suggests to me that the editor just gave up. The old generation characters were all incredibly one-note; if you want to write a retelling focusing on the younger generation, that’s fine, but King Lear himself shouldn’t need to have a POV chapter to be a complex and interesting character. 

But we’re getting rather nitpicky now so let’s zoom back out. This book was marketed as a “feminist King Lear retelling” and a word that I’ve seen a lot of people use to talk about it is “subversive.” But my issue is that it was not, at all. As I mentioned above, the first half of the book follows Lear with dogged faithfulness, and after that, things start to go off the rails. Which is fine, fun, exactly what I’m here for! If I wanted to read King Lear I’d just read King Lear. But when Gratton started taking control of the narrative, her choices, to me, started to become more and more unwieldy. Nothing she did felt to me like a direct, deliberate subversion of the play; it felt like she had more interest in telling her own story with these characters than doing so as a means to engage with the original text, and that’s something that I think makes for an unsuccessful retelling. I don’t think you need to have complete and utter reverence for the original, but I think a love for the play coupled with a clear vision for how to engage with it is necessary. I felt–especially after reading an interview with Gratton–that her aim here was as nebulous as ‘King Lear but with better female characters’, and as a staunch Lear fan, I was rooting for this book but it really let me down in the end.

But I will end on a positive note (sort of): while I felt that Elia was as stiff and uninteresting as cardboard, I thought Gratton succeeded in doing some very interesting things with Gaela and Regan; Gaela particularly. The ways in which Gratton played with gender in Gaela’s chapters were dynamic and exciting and I think that along with the aforementioned magic system, Gaela’s character is this novel’s primary strength. 

This is already the longest review I’ve written in ages and I’m not sure how to end it. Bottom line, do I recommend this book? While I appreciate you sticking with me for this long, probably in hopes of me answering that question, I’m sorry to say that I really don’t know. I think you should be interested in Lear but not love Lear, maybe that’s the key to unlocking the optimal reading experience.

13 thoughts on “book review: The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

  1. Very, very interesting. Hogarth Press did a series of contemporary retellings of Shakespeare, of which I read a few (Tracy Chevalier’s Othello, awful; Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth, awful; Margaret Atwood’s The Tempest, reasonable). Nesbo’s Macbeth in particular is egregious for repeating dialogue from the plays almost, but not quite, word for word, which, as you point out, is so self-defeating. The books I’ve seen engage the most effectively with a Shakespearean plot are the ones where the author keeps the bare bones of event and character relationships, but then writes the story the way it would actually work out in their chosen time/place, which ironically always results in a much closer, more insightful commentary on Shakespeare’s originals than any attempts to recreate them closely. Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (Lear as a prosperous Midwestern farmer who divides his land between his kids when he retires, cue family trauma and disaster) is hands down brilliant, and if you haven’t read it already, I think you’d love it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The only Hogarth Shakespeare I’ve read is Dunbar (King Lear, again) and I actually think I’m going to reread it this year – I liked it but with a few reservations which I think I’m going to feel differently about this time. I’ve heard terrible at worst/mediocre at best things about most books in that series though I kind of want to read them all at some point as a personal Project. We’ll see. Ugh, bummer that Nesbo does that same obnoxious dialogue thing.

      And yes, A Thousand Acres! Haven’t read it but I have a copy. I think I’m going to read at least one Lear retelling per month this year until I’ve read them all so I’ll definitely get to that sooner rather than later.

      But yeah that’s exactly how I feel about retellings–less is more!

      Liked by 1 person

      • OH heck I read Dunbar too and forgot it completely, which I suppose means I didn’t hate it quite as much as the others. Though I recall not liking it very much, either. Also, St Aubyn came to sign at the shop and was very snooty when I tried to join a conversation about dramatic interpretation, so I’ve not liked him or anything he’s produced since. I hold a good grudge.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Despite how you feel about copying sentences, can I steal this one for my eventual discussion of Calm with Horses, because that’s what they did to Arm and yeah I hate it!!

    “an attempt to make his transgressions to come from a play of moral purity.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That modern ‘translation’ of the dialogue is really not a good idea. I’m now trying to remember I’ve I’ve read any Shakespeare retellings that worked (I agree with what Elle says above about the general failings of the Hogath Press retellings). I have read A Thousand Acres, but it didn’t work for me, though I admired Smiley’s writing.

    Liked by 1 person

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