Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

Tessa Gratton proves, in her first novel for adults, that the fields originally tilled by Shakespeare himself are still fertile ones today. The Queens of Innis Lear will be familiar in its bone structure to anyone who’s read or seen the Bard’s King Lear, but Gratton has padded it in new flesh and clothed it in entirely new raiment. In place of England, we are presented with the island of Innis Lear, a wild and mythic sort of land where the old magics of trees and rootwater and blood are still revered and witches still walk the wildwoods. But Innis Lear’s king, the aging King Lear himself, last male descendant of the Lear dynasty for which the island is named, has turned his back on the old magic of the land, preferring the prophecies to be read in the rising and setting and configurations of the stars. He has ordered the sacred wells to be capped, and the island is beginning to die, very slowly, as it is neglected in favor of the heavens.

Lear has no sons. He has, instead, three daughters: Gaela the eldest, a warlike woman who dresses and acts like a man, who was perhaps born in a body not matching the configuration of her spirit, and who is determined to be King herself, never queen; Regan the middle daughter, who is manipulative and a master of politics to complement her general of a sister, who desires a child beyond all things and yet has never been able to carry one to term; and the youngest, Elia, who is a sheltered and fragile-seeming star priest, her father’s favorite and thus ostracized and distanced from her sisters. Behind all of them lies the specter of Lear’s queen and the girls’ mother, a strong and vibrant woman from a foreign nation who was prophesied in the stars to die on the 16th birthday of her eldest daughter. And die she did, that very morning; and Gaela and Regan believe their star-obsessed father killed her so his beloved prophecies would never be proven untrue.

And so in their resentment and hatred for their father, the two eldest girls scheme, along with their husbands, to take control of the island from him, to inherit and become King and Queen themselves. When Lear, lost to madness and senility and a very old grief, exiles and strips the supposedly faithless former favorite Elia of her title and declares that he will instead split the island’s rule between the two eldest daughters and their husbands and eventual heirs, it seems that Gaela and Regan’s plotting and ambitions will come to fruition.

The fly in the ointment, however, is Elia’s potential alliance with a mainland king who himself has ambitions to reclaim the island of Innis Lear, once a part of his own kingdom – and the machinations of Ban the Fox, a bastard son of a noble Innis Lear house with his own reasons for hating King Lear, and his own love for Elia, both of which drive him to more and more unpredictable actions.

Drawing equally on King Lear and on the native folklores of Britain, Gratton adds to this already rich and heady mix an inventiveness and depth of characterization all her own. Elegantly written, with a strong focus on the female voices and a setting which all but serves as a character itself, The Queens of Innis Lear is that rarity in the fantasy genre today – a single volume story which nevertheless has an epic feel.

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