The Queens of Innis Lear doesn’t shy away from tragedy in the best way


The Queens of Innis Lear has a tragic turn for almost all of its main characters, but it makes sure to humanize every one of them, making a great read.

The Queens of Innis Lear doesn’t shy away from its inspiration — Shakespeare’s King Lear — in either its title or the names of its three main characters, the title queens. Gaela, Regan and Elia all take some aspects of their characters from the sisters of the play in question. The storm shows up. Lear is mad. But somehow, Tessa Gratton’s book turns a tragedy of one into a tragedy of many in an often beautifully-written way.

Make no mistake about it, though. Innis Lear can be dense, particularly with its competing systems of magic and religion. Gratton’s dialogue sometimes reads as though it’s directly from or at least inspired by Shakespeare’s mix of prose and blank verse in the play.

But when her work is on, it is absolutely on, and she weaves together both past and present to make her characters more complex than can be accomplished in the play.

The closest to a true protagonist is Elia, but her two sisters shine through as well. Perhaps hardest to get to know and appreciate is Gaela, but the book does not leave her behind at all. Regan has the most obvious tragedy of the three. So where does that leave Elia, caught between so many different competing interests? Well, it does leave a lot of room for character development, and she ends up as the most compelling and perhaps the greatest departure from King Lear in that we don’t have to say goodbye to her for a significant portion of the story.

But Gratton ranges beyond the three sisters to put us in the heads of other characters as well, making the story richer for it. Perhaps her best work is done with Ban Errigal, the illegitimate son of one of the earls of the island. There’s a serious amount of moral complexity with Ban — to make a comparison here: Jon Snow, eat your heart out — that makes his eventual fate hurt in a way a reader may not expect it to.

While Gratton uses flashbacks throughout, set and separated into their own distinct chapters, they don’t take the story down in any way. Rather, they further flesh out and explain why things have played out like this. Ultimately, it makes the world feel more real and concrete. The events of Innis Lear, thanks to the flashback, don’t feel like they occur in a vacuum. It’s really some stellar world-building all around.

It seems as though this year is meant for high fantasies starring women after Daughters of the Storm burst onto the scene, but The Queens of Innis Lear goes a step further and pointedly includes characters of color everywhere. Gaela, Regan and Elia come from a biracial background, and Gratton doesn’t shy away from discussing how their skin tones and their mother’s skin tone are received on the rather pale island of Innis Lear. She even discusses the ideas of what makes a woman or a man — and one character says it’s not biologically determined.

This reader isn’t sure if Gratton hired sensitivity readers, but certainly thinks that careful thought produced these moments, which don’t come on shining, huge moments as if to say “Look, I have tried to check these boxes!” but rather fit in naturally.

This book should draw in fantasy fans and even fans of Shakespeare who aren’t sure about fantasy as a genre.

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The Queens of Innis Lear arrives on March 27 from Tor Books.