I actually finished this last week, and I’ve dreaded writing the review. I’m having a hard time reconciling the beauty of Gratton’s writing with the fact that this book is painfully bloated and over descriptive. It also happens to be a retelling of one of my favorite Shakespeare stories: King Lear.
Blurb (from GoodReads): The erratic decisions of a prophecy-obsessed king have drained Innis Lear of its wild magic, leaving behind a trail of barren crops and despondent subjects. Enemy nations circle the once-bountiful isle, sensing its growing vulnerability, hungry to control the ideal port for all trade routes.
The king’s three daughters—battle-hungry Gaela, master manipulator Reagan, and restrained, starblessed Elia—know the realm’s only chance of resurrection is to crown a new sovereign, proving a strong hand can resurrect magic and defend itself. But their father will not choose an heir until the longest night of the year, when prophecies align and a poison ritual can be enacted.
Refusing to leave their future in the hands of blind faith, the daughters of Innis Lear prepare for war—but regardless of who wins the crown, the shores of Innis will weep the blood of a house divided.
This is a pretty exact retelling of King Lear in terms of the events that happen. Where it is not exact is: A) the inclusion of magic and B) the lack of humor. King Lear is really a rather dark play, that’s broken up by bits of humor from the Fool and Lear’s madness.
And that was one of the places where this book failed, hard. It’s all dark, and not even remotely funny. Combine that darkness with some very overly descriptive passages of setting and endless prattling about the magic of Lear, and the book really needed that injection of humor to pick up the momentum.
The magic felt a little pointless. Some of the individual characters harness that magic to their own benefit by talking to trees and drinking root water, but no one ever really articulates what will happen if the magic dies. Will the island sink into the sea? Will the vegetation and wildlife die off thereby making the island uninhabitable?
Without knowing that- there weren’t any stakes and little suspense. I wasn’t given a reason to care whether the magic on Innis Lear dies. So what? So Elia can’t talk to the trees anymore? So the witch of Hartfare can’t foretell the future? So those that use magic have to live a more mundane life? To talk about the magic in the setting that much and never once give the reader a reason why it mattered was a big source of frustration for me.
I enjoyed some of the characters. Elia didn’t make me feel any type of way. She felt like a very typical, fresh out of the box heroine, embodying many virtuous qualities without having a lot of depth. She’s the character we spend the most time with, and it was frustrating because she was the least interesting of the three sisters for me.
Gaela was my favorite- but even she has her issues. I enjoyed her because she’s a female warrior, and refuses to let herself be silenced by the men in her life, be they her husband or her father. My issue was that I’m not sure if she was supposed to be a transgender character. She often genders herself as male, but then none of the other characters gender her that way, and she seemed uncommitted to being male when speaking to others.
I think it was great to see gender portrayed as fluid, but I also wish this had been explored a little more or made clearer. It came off as wishy washy and because of that the message seemed to be that Gaela wanted to be a man because she wanted to be strong and powerful, and not because she really felt like a man (if that was even what she wanted). I wish it had been recognized somewhere that kings aren’t inherently stronger than queens simply because they’re male.
Aside from the above problems, the structure was a huge issue for me. We’d sometimes get some forward momentum in the story, and it would be immediately broken by a needless flashback to something that happened years ago that was already easily inferred from the previous text. They didn’t enhance the story at all and detracted a lot from the pacing. A good example is Regan and Connley. Three quarters of the way in we get a flashback to the time when they first met. By that time in the book, the reader already knows these characters are crazy in love with each other. That flashback did nothing to move the story forward and didn’t help the reader understand their relationship in any more meaningful a way than we already did. I was constantly frustrated and put off from reading whenever I’d read the header: TEN YEARS AGO.
Compounding the problem, there were way too many viewpoints. I think everyone except the Fool and Brona gets their own POV chapter at some point. It made the book feel like it lacked focus and also created a lot of distance between the reader and the characters, making it hard to connect with any one of them. I think the story would have been infinitely stronger if we’d only seen the story told from the sisters POVs and maybe Ban’s. At one point, about a hundred pages in I came to a POV chapter from Aefa. I put the book down, and every time I went to pick it up again, opened it and saw her name I immediately put it back down again. She didn’t have anything to add that couldn’t have been told from Elia’s perspective.
There were a few moments of brilliance. The later scenes between Gaela and her husband for example, where she asserts her dominance over him, were wonderful and a definite highlight of the book for me. If this had been a retelling solely from Gaela’s point of view with her remade as a sort of antihero rather than the villain I think I would have enjoyed it much more.
Finally, the writing really is beautiful, definitely worthy of Shakespeare. I just wish those words had been spent more on the storytelling than the descriptions of scenery and magic, which became immensely redundant a third of the way in.
Gratton is releasing another book next year, Lady Hotspur, that I was very excited for. However, given my experience with this I’m undecided if I’ll pick it up. I just don’t have the patience for books told this way lately.