Book Review: The Queens of Innis Lear
So, dear readers, here's a revelation: I absolutely LOVE Shakespeare. I was in the Shakespeare Society in college, I own the complete works, etc. One of the fastest ways to my heart is Shakespeare. So imagine my sheer delight upon discovering The Queens of Innis Lear, a retelling of King Lear in a more fantastic version of our world. HELL yes.
If you've read King Lear, then you know the drill. Lear has three daughters, here named Gaela, Regan and Elia. To determine which should be his heir, Lear asks them all to declare their love for him. Gaela and Regan, though they despise their father, lie through their teeth. Elia, meanwhile, refuses to lie and simply states that she loves him as a daughter should love her father. This is not enough for the mad Lear, who exiles Elia and then apportions his kingdom between Gaela and Regan. Proceed to hell in a handbasket as everything falls apart.
Except this a retelling, and it's exactly what I wanted in a retelling of Lear: it's wholly, deeply, entirely focused on Lear's daughters. In the play, the daughters are mere shells of characters, turned into cartoonish villains (in the case of Gaela/Goneril and Regan) or exiled from the majority of the plan and never allowed to develop (Cordelia/Elia).
The reverse is true here. Each of the daughters is a fully three-dimensional character, with her own loves and hates, her own quirks and flaws, her own goals. Lear, meanwhile, is relegated to only a few vital scenes, such as the one above. He's present, but never a main character, and his madness here is not so much a thing to be explored in great detail as it is a thing to be pitied or hated.
Lear's madness is complemented by the book's magic system. The island of Innis Lear is founded on two types of magic, that of the stars and that of the rootwater. But in his madness, Lear has abandoned the rootwaters, and it's slowly but surely killing the island.
This magical dynamic allows Gratton to play up some of the characters' qualities by showing us where their magical loyalties lie. Elia, her father's faithful daughter, starts the book in training to be a star priestess, yet over the course of the novel she rediscovered her connection with the island's roots and trees. Gaela and Regan, openly defiant of their father, shun the stars. Regan is a rootwater witch in full; her first scene, in fact, displays this important trait, setting her apart from Lear early. Gaela, meanwhile, trusts neither stars nor roots, preferring to believe in herself and her sister. Ban Errigal, the Edmund analogue, is also a rootwater wizard from the beginning, which foreshadows the role he'll play in the conflict.
Since we're already discussing the characters, I want to again reiterate how glad I am for the attention Gratton has given the daughters. Elia is vulnerable and naive to start, bullied by her sisters for taking their father's side. Yet over the course of the novel, she blossoms. She develops an iron will and unflinchingly puts the good of the island and her people above her own, which her sisters never do.
Yet that's not to say her sisters are flat. Both of them benefit greatly from backstory crafted by Gratton. (For instance, warlike Gaela has had her womb removed via magic so that she will never have to bear a child). Each of them struggles with the weight of their destinies, forecast by their father at their births. And they both think what they're doing is right, even as they make worse and worse choices driven by their all-consuming hatred of Lear.
Regan benefits the most from this approach. She could have had a good life; she loves her husband deeply, and it's remarked on by several of the characters. She's a powerful witch and generally likeable. But she gets caught up in the schemes of others: of her sister Gaela, and of Ban Errigal. It's enough to make you wonder what she could have been if she'd been closer to Elia; it's hinted at, early on, that Regan bears Elia no ill will of her own.
Still on the added backstory front, all three girls are scarred by arguably the book's most important character: their mother. Their mother is dead for the entirely of the book, yet she casts an immense shadow and influences more of the story than Lear does. Gaela and Regan blame their father for their mother's death, and the book's climax turns on the revelation of how their mother actually died.
There are men here, too, and Gratton has done just as excellent of a job. I rather liked Gaela's husband, Astore; his goals (such as a child with his wife) are not unreasonable, and he cares for his own. His fate saddened me. Ban Errigal was always a lost cause, but he's like a beautiful trainwreck. You can't look away even as he digs a deeper and deeper hole for himself. Morimaros, the analogue for the king of France, is equally fantastic, the picture of a noble king and Elia's equal in iron will and good conscience, and I so wish Elia could have married him.
Thankfully, The Queens of Innis Lear loses some of the play's least interesting parts (like Lear raving on the blasted heath). That helps the pacing tremendously, though it does still drag occasionally (it's a very long book). If you've read the play, don't expect to be surprised by the ending. It's hard to craft suspense when your audience knows what's coming, and Gratton never quite managed to get me to the edge of my seat.
Still, this book contains everything I love about Shakespeare, improved immensely by extra characterization and backstory. If you're a fan (or even if you're not--you'll be more surprised by the plot's twists and turns), I highly recommend The Queens of Innis Lear.