Despite loving fantasy novels, I haven’t read that many. As in, I haven’t finished reading that many. YA fantasy, yes. But YA fantasy is usually about 200-300 pages less than adult fantasy and less dense. Thus, I have a hard time sticking to a fantasy novel all the way through. But this year, I’ve been pushing myself to branch out and actually read adult, high fantasy novels. One of these was The Queens of Innis Lear, a high fantasy retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear. And wow, this book was long. (But also good.)
Innis Lear is dying. The king’s prophecy-obsessed decisions have drained the island of its magic, and only way to save it is to crown a new sovereign. But Lear refuses to choose an heir, leaving his daughters at odds with one another. Ruthless, manipulative, and out of place, the three prepare for war, willing to do anything to take the throne.
I can’t say King Lear is a favorite Shakespeare of mine. Riddled with too much madness and bloodshed, I didn’t find the story that compelling. I read simply so I could read The Queens of Innis Lear. But I’m glad I read it beforehand because I think it helped me appreciate how Tessa Gratton took the story and shaped it into her own.
This book has a lot packed into its 500+ pages. There are so many threads from family strains and romantic relationships to wild magic and star prophecies to politics and war. This is a story about three sisters, but it also a story about a broken father, a bastard, a mother who would do anything for her children, a forest witch, a king who wants to be remembered, a fool, a servant who wants to protect her queen, and more. The scope of this story is huge, and to explain fully how much this book lives and breathes would be impossible except to just read it yourself.
The book switches between various narrators (all third-person) to tell the tale, and I never found any of them lacking. Each one brings something to the story, makes the world fuller, and frustrates the plot as the story weaves deep into the heart of Innis Lear. The details and the descriptions of the story were startling beautiful, and I love the magic and belief system that ties everything together. As a retelling, it follows the Shakespearean tragedy fairly well, only deviating slightly, but fleshes out the story to give it something more. As an adult fantasy novel, it does contain mature content, but Gratton writes it with purpose and care.
If adult fantasy is your thing and Shakespeare is your thing (or you loathe Shakespeare and want a better version of his story), The Queens of Innis Lear is a deep story about a dysfunctional family and their desperation for power. The Shakespearean drama is not lost in the retelling. If anything, Gratton drives more drama into the story, making you care about the characters along the way.