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.

Pride Month: Books on my TBR!

Last week in celebration of Pride Month I talked about some of my favorite queer characters in fiction.  This week I want to talk about some of the books on my TBR featuring more LGBTQIA+ characters.  I’m going to start with a few that have already been released and I’m hoping to catch up on, but I also have some exciting future releases too.

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (and the rest of The Machineries of Empire series):  I am really scared to start this because I feel really confident that I’m going to love it and it will end up a new favorite read.  I am also scared to start this because I have a tendency to form expectations and then let myself down.  It’s supposed to be super complex and I’m hoping to see some elements that remind me of another favorite series, Terra Ignota.

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The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling:  My favorite genre mashup of all time is always going to be Science Fiction and Horror, and The Luminous Dead looks like the perfect combo of both.  I think space lends itself so very well to all kinds of horror situations.  Whether you’re just trying to survive the freezing desolate landscape of an undiscovered planet, being chased by alien creatures, or you’re adrift in a derelict space ship with no one to call for help, chances are, things will end badly.  I already have a buddy read planned for this one in September and I can’t wait!

Annex by Rich Larson

Annex (The Violet Wars #1) by Rich Larson:  This is a YA book about an alien invasion that somehow or other, leaves the world without adults.  At first, Violet and her friends think it’s pretty great to have so much freedom… but then the invaders come back.  One of my regular buddy readers enjoyed it and said it has trans rep (and that the character was one of her favorites), so I’m very excited to check it out. (PSA: this is currently $1.99 in the US Kindle Store as of 6/13.)

Love beyond body, space & time anthology

Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time Anthology edited by Hope Nicholson: This is a collection of indigenous short fiction all featuring LGBTQ+ characters.  It’s a pretty quick read (125 pages according to GoodReads) and I picked it up on sale awhile back.  Indigenous authors seem to be severely underrepresented in not only speculative fiction but fiction in general, so that makes this doubly exciting.

The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne: Meena lives in futuristic Mumbai, but feels she must return to Ethiopia, her birthplace.  She’s not sure what’s waiting for her there, but she decides to cross using a forbidden energy bridge that spans the Arabian Sea.  Mariama, a girl from another time, is fleeing to Ethiopia from across the Saharan Africa in hopes of finding a better life.  It’s described as melding the influences of Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, and Erin Morgenstern, and it’s been on my TBR for way too long.

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch:  This is a Joan of Arc retelling in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic landscape.  Do I really need to say more?

The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht

The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht (releases September 24, 2019): I talked about this one not too long ago, but I love the idea of lovers being villains together.    This is quickly becoming one of my most anticipated fall releases.

Overthrow by Caleb Crain

Overthrow by Caleb Crain (releases August 27, 2019): I stumbled across this on Edelweiss, and everything about the description had me falling in love.  The blurb is too long to summarize here, but buzzwords that caught my attention: telepathy, tarot cards, poets, the 1%, and utopian spirit, all featuring a m/m relationship that will be put to the test in a dystopian world that sounds similar to Orwell’s 1984.  Viking denied me the ARC, but luckily, August isn’t that far away.

Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim

Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim (releases January 7, 2020):  A gender flipped Count of Monte Christo retelling with Ace and Bisexual rep in space.  I have a feeling this will be huge when it finally hits shelves.  Right now, January feels very, very far away.

The Seep by Chana Porter

The Seep by Chana Porter (releases January 21, 2020): The Seep is about an alien invasion that brings new technologies, dismantles hierarchies, destroys capitalism, and introduces utopia.  The story follows a trans woman after her wife, seduced by Seep-tech, leaves her.  I really wish utopian stories had the same popularity as dystopians.  Mostly because I’m curious what others imagine utopia to be and how human society could ever get there.  I’m super excited for this, but have been holding off reading it until closer to release day.

Lady Hotspur by Tessa Gratton

Lady Hotspur by Tessa Gratton (releases January 7, 2020):  I am reading The Queens of Innis Lear now, sheerly in preparation for this book, which I added entirely for the title without realizing that Hotspur is a character in Shakespeare’s Henry IV.  Fiery lady knight falls in love with a female military commander known as the Wolf of Aremoria?  I need this in my hands like, yesterday.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir (releases September 10, 2019):  From GoodReads: “Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead bullshit.”  To that I say, sold!  I’m already in love with the personality of Gideon from that one line alone.  Necromancy is usually not my thing, but if a character is well written I’ll read just about anything.  It’s already getting rave reviews and thank goodness I don’t have to wait until 2020 for this one!

That’s it!  I’ve already seen a few Pride Month TBRs floating around in the blogosphere, but please let me know if you have any additional recs- I’d love to hear them!

Library Book Haul

How do you bust a reading slump?

Read ALL the books.

So I went to the library and got ALL the books.

Okay not really.  Here’s what’s up next:

Witchmark C.L. Polk

Witchmark by C. L. Polk

Initial impressions: The writing is excellent.  I only read the first chapter but it was super atmospheric.  It was very easy to picture the setting: people riding bikes and horse drawn carriages in the streets.  A bustling city with soldiers coming and going.  The shadow of war hanging over them all.  The intrigue level is super high.  Nothing is really explained.  It starts out normal enough with a doctor leaving work for the day, and an emergency patient coming through.  And then the magic and witchery starts.  I was expecting more magical realism than straight up magic (which honestly is not really my thing) but I like it so far.  It seems to be hinting at an underground mage society so I’m excited to see where that leads to.  A promising start!

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Initial impressions: First of all- GoodReads told me this was 182 pages long.  It’s not.  I’m willing to forgive it in lieu of the fabulous introduction from Stephen King.  When he found this book, he said he was looking for a book about “how boys really are.”  Golding’s influence on King is obvious.  As I read through the first chapters I kept thinking it felt familiar. Finally I realized it was because it feels like King.  The characters feel real, the prose isn’t overly flowery (though more flowery than King’s).  I’m a little confused about how these boys got to this island, but so far that first chapter is the one that resonated with me the most, so I’ll be continuing with this one before the others.

Initial Impressions: This is confusing as hell.

Seriously- why do authors think writing without quotation marks is a good thing?  Not cool man. I had to re-read a paragraph like eight times, move on, and then double back when I realized there weren’t any quotation marks (and honestly I’m still not sure I understood the conversation).  Otherwise, the prose is spot on.  I’ve highlighted a couple quotes I love already, and if it wasn’t for Lord of the Flies, this would have been my second pick to continue reading.  I’m not sure what the judge’s deal is. I know he’s the big bad in this novel though, so I’m excited to see what it’s leading up to.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Initial impressions: I just read a book where a man gets shot in the chest, kills another man dead for taking his shoes, but pulling the wings off a fat little bumblebee bothered me more.  There’s something wrong with me right?  Anyway- I was immediately sucked in by the premise.  A little girl meets a strange man.  There’s something sinister happening with the strange man (Harper Curtis).  That much is obvious from the start.  He seems to hint that he’s acting under orders from some other organization, but that doesn’t make you like him any more.  The writing is great and I’m curious to see where it goes.

Queen of Kings by Maria Dahvana Headley

Queen of Kings by Maria Dahvana Headley

Initial impressions: I think I’ve only really read the introduction and the prologue so far, but I’m a little disappointed.  I’m still coming down from the high that was The Mere Wife, so I had high expectations.  My favorite type of writing, my favorite type of book, is one that I like to describe as unapologetic.  The author writes in a way that’s bound to make the reader uncomfortable, exposing all the ugly truths within a person or a society or practice, but so far this isn’t that.  It doesn’t carry the same level of force that The Mere Wife does. Still, I haven’t read much so I’ll remain hopeful.

The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

Initial impressions: I wasn’t really interested in The Queens of Innis Lear when it first released.  The title, the name… it seemed like a pretty generic fantasy to me.  It looked and sounded similar to Four Dead Queens and Three Dark Crowns, which all released at about the same time. But I recently stumbled across the title Lady Hotspur which I added strictly because of the title.  When I checked out the blurb of that, it referenced this.  So I doubled back to TQOIL and read the blurb, and thought what the hell.  I liked King Lear, who not give it a go?  I hope it maintains the humor and wit of King Lear throughout.

So that’s ALL the books.

Have you read any of them?  Are they on your TBR?

Also- please send help.