When I first saw this book on NetGalley, for a moment I thought it was the next book in Kendare Blake’s Three Dark Crowns series. Even the summary—three sisters all fighting for a crown—seemed familiar. It was both similar and different enough to be be appealing. And it was clear from the very first words that The Queens of Innis Lear would give me something that mistaken series wouldn’t: three adult sisters. (Look, I have some issues with YA was a genre and the tropes that appear within it.) It was only after I was several chapters in that I realized another important detail I had some how missed: The Queens of Innis Lear is a retelling of Shakespeare’s play, King Lear. It’s been several years since I last read King Lear (though now I’m considering rereading some Shakespeare, because I really need more things to add to my reread list this year), but I remember enough to be familiar with the story.
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.
As much as I love a good fairy tale retelling, I also love a good Shakespeare retelling. There’s such a wealth of things to explore in Shakespeare’s plays, not the least because he often draws from folk stories and fairy tales himself. I wanted so so so much to love Jacqueline Carey’s Miranda and Caliban, and I just didn’t.
But this book. I enjoyed the hell out of this book. And, at the same time, I have some major issues with the main character. Regan and Gaela were wild and passionate, and I loved both of them. It was Regan and Gaela who set the tone of this novel, whose passion pulled me into and along with the story. Their flaws were relatable and eventually led them to understandable ends. I loved every minute I spent reading their POV chapters.
Then there’s Elia, the main protagonist. It’s not that Elia is unlikable, because I did like her. She’s compassionate in a way that no one else in this novel is—or can afford to be—and she clings to that compassion even when the world is falling apart around her. That’s an admirable quality in anyone, even more so in a queen. But at the same time, I mostly found her rationale to be completely incomprehensible.
Elia spends the first half of the book doing absolutely nothing. Even when she acknowledges that she isn’t doing anything and declares her intent to act, she seems to go out of her way to do the barest minimum and refuse to do what’s needed. The reader knows she’s no stranger to sacrificing for her family and for her island, having given up everything else in life but the stars for her father, so her refusal to take up the crown of her island even when she doesn’t want to, is incredibly frustrating to read. Even with the island, given it’s own magical voice in the trees and the winds, is practically screaming for her to be the queen it needs to heal itself, and she still would rather put one of her sisters on the throne.
Then there’s Elia’s two love interests.
Morimaros, King of Aremoria, admits to his desire for claim Innis Lear as part of his kingdom, admits to sending Ban to damage her country so it would be vulnerable to invasion. He makes these admissions because he has fallen in love with her, something else he admits to her, and states his intention to give up his desire to claim her kingdom. The two are, when working in concert for the good of their kingdoms, remarkably well suited. The chemistry between Mars and Elia only grows through the novel and it seemed obvious to me that, between him and Ban, Morimaros of Aermoria was the better man. Both in strength of character, and his devotion to her. That Elia couldn’t see this—or refused to acknowledge it—was a constant source of frustration.
And it is Ban who returns to Innis Lear to wreak havoc, it is Ban who sets himself in opposition to Elia and allies himself with her deadly sisters. It is Ban who kills her beloved father. And yet, inexplicably, it is also Ban who Elia forgives. Despite their contradictory views of the world, it is Ban who Elia loves. As far as I can tell, she loves him and forgives him where she cannot do the same with Morimaros simply because Ban is her first love and a man of Innis Lear.
But people grow and change. In real life, certainly, but also in books. That’s the whole point of most novels: to chronicle the change and growth of a character. If a character doesn’t change, doesn’t learn and grow, then nothing meaningful has really happened and the reader is left unsatisfied. Elia does learn and grow and change… in other aspects. I can understand the author’s desire to give her some constancy, something that grows with her. But the place of that constancy seemed poorly chosen.
Elia is loved by two men, and loves both in return. But in the end she forgives the man who refuses to apologize for the immeasurable hurt he has caused her and her island, and scorns the man who humbles himself and asks for her forgiveness. I found that wasn’t something I could forgive her for.
The Queens of Innis Lear is written by Tessa Gratton and was published by Tor on March 27, 2018.