Book Review: The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

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.

The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

Rating:  ★★

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.

The Queens of Innis Lear can be found on GoodReads and Amazon.

15 thoughts on “Book Review: The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

  1. Ouch! Well, I wouldn’t have picked this up to begin with since I’m not into books with magic. If you want a book that is a retelling of King Lear, you could read “A Thousand Acres” by Jane Smiley instead (it is also a film, but I never saw it).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the rec- I’ll definitely check it out. Despite being a fantasy lover- I am weirdly not that into books with magic either. I don’t mind it if it’s off in the background somewhere not playing a huge part in the story- but I really dislike when it’s the focus as it was here.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah too bad! I honestly haven’t seen a lot of reviews for this book, but I actually have a copy that I was hoping to read at some point. I think it’s probably worse for you since you’re familiar with King Lear. And Lady Hotspur is the sequel, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s set within the world Gratton has created, but doesn’t continue with the same characters (it’s a retelling of Shakespeare’s historical play- Henry IV).

      And please don’t let me discourage you from reading it- I think you have more patience than I do, and you might enjoy the magic more than I did. But I will say if make it 100 pages in or so and aren’t enjoying it, it’s probably safe to DNF.

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  3. Pity, this one sounds neat (and the cover is amazing). I’m still tentatively interested in it, but I’ll definitely need to read King Lear first. Also, your review makes me glad I have no problem with DNFing books. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha- this one I probably should have DNF’d, but in the beginning I was like “It’s King Lear, it will get better!” Then by the end I was like “it’s not going to get better but darn it I will conquer you!”

      And please don’t let my reviews discourage you if you’re interested- I am just at a point where I have no patience for 600 pages books that want to describe scenery and magic systems lol. Some readers like that and there’s nothing wrong with it.

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      • I am really opposed to 400+ page books that are that long without good reason. So… 😉

        (And I fully admit that some books are that long or longer and still leave me wanting more. But if you’re going to write a long book, you’d better also do a good job of editing it for pacing and such.)

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Ouch, sorry to hear that this wasn’t too good! Was dreading your review a little when you said a post or two ago that you were struggling through this one. It would be interesting though if the author had written her as a definitive role (identity wise) and if she had written her as an anti-villain (I love antivillains!)
    -Emma 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. More power to you for finishing it! I had to bow out halfway through. 😀 It definitely felt kind of…performative to me. Like the author got so carried away with the language and the ambience that she forgot there’s a story that still needs to be told. I do recommend Gratton’s Strange Grace, though! It’s beautiful and MUCH less of a drag.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah well that’s good to know!! Maybe all hope is not lost for Lady Hotspur then? I really am bummed about that one. I just couldn’t suffer another 600 pager like this though.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ohh I didn’t know Lady Hotspur is also going to be ~600 pages. For some reason I thought it’d be shorter than Innis Lear? Now I’m nervous lol. Well, on the positive side, yay–more big fantasy books with female leads! Hopefully some of the problems from Innis Lear will be ironed out.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah it’s showing on GR as 500+… I guess there’s still time for her editors to cut some I guess? I’m not really expecting them too though. Clearly they didn’t think it was an issue here.

        Ugh- I’ll try to stay positive. This is based on a historical Shakespeare play and his Julius Caesar was actually one I liked better than his others so we’ll see.

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