The world needs more books like Tessa Gratton‘s The Queens of Innis Lear (review copy from Harper Voyager). It’s a retelling of Shakespeare’s classic play, King Lear, but updated with a very 21st Century take on the story.
All the elements you would expect are here – the mad king (in this case, suffering from dementia as he grows older), three very different daughters competing to inherit the crown, treachery and true love. You know the basic plot, right down to the test of which daughter loves the old king best. But Tessa Gratton takes it in some very interesting directions.
The thing I loved most about this book was its treatment of the three daughters. They are mixed-race. It is heavily implied that one of them is actually a transgender man (Gaela styles herself ‘King’, dresses in a masculine fashion and suffers extreme gender dysphoria). The book is sex-positive. But crucially, the book places a strong emphasis on the agency of the daughters. Elia (the youngest daughter) goes on a journey that is about becoming an independent woman of power in her own right. She rejects the easy and safe options when they are presented to her. Exiled from Innis Lear, she is offered marriage by the King of Aremoria, but turns him down because of the power imbalance between them and because she knows it would be used as an excuse to invade her homeland.
There is also a strong theme about the relationship between parents and children. Whether it is the central relationship between Lear and his three daughters, or Ban the Fox’s feeling of rejection by his father for being illegitimate and the way he has found acceptance and a place overseas by his own deeds rather than his heredity. The novel shows how easy it is for family relationships to be soured, and how the professions of love and affection can sometimes be only so much lip service.
And the novel also places great weight on the need for balance in all things. Only in Elia does that come together, and only when she learns to balance the astronomy of her father with the Earth-magic of Innis Lear. And Innis Lear will not thrive without both being in balance in their ruler – under Lear himself the land has been slowly fading. Gaela rejects all forms of magic and prophecy, focusing only on the power that military prowess gives her. Regan focuses on Earth-magic, but hers is a selfish focus, and she is in too co-dependent a relationship with her husband to survive.
All of this is wrapped up in lush prose from Gratton that provides a strong sense of place, whether it is the wind-swept cliffs or deep forest of Innis Lear.
Goodreads rating: 4*