Amy Goldschlager Reviews The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

The Queens of Innis Lear, Tessa Gratton; Kate Reading, narrator (Macmillan Audio, $39.99, digital, 26.5 hr., unabridged) March 2018.

This magic-infused retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear aims to add backstory and depth to the tragedy, and even rewrite the fates of some of the favorite characters. When Queen Dalat died, her two elder daughters blamed their father King Lear for her demise, and King Lear intensified his study in star prophecy, cutting off the island’s access to earth magic. A decade later, the declining king splits his kingdom between the two sisters, the cold-hearted warrior Gaela (Goneril in the play) who always expected to be sole heir, and the passionate earth witch Regan, who longs desperately for a child. The youngest daughter, the caring and lonely star priest Elia (Cordelia), misjudges the situation and her father’s state of mind; she ends up exiled, despite being the only one who truly loves Lear. All the signs point to Elia being the one who will revive the island’s union of earth and star magic and bring the people together under her rule, but it’s a role she’s reluctant to accept. Meanwhile, the bastard wizard and spy Ban the Fox (Edmund) sows discord, at first in the service of the King of Aremoria (France), and then on his own behalf.

Kate Reading was absolutely fabulous as the narrator; of especial note was her silky, purring voice as Regan. She provides a solemnity that makes this fantasy sound like the mythic epic it clearly longs to be.

The major drawback to the novel is the pacing, a flaw which is always accentuated in an audio production. King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s longer plays, but a performance still only clocks in at about three and a half hours or so, depending on the edit. This novel is more than 26 hours’ worth of listening time; does all of that extra time add value and richness to the original story? The answer: up to a point, and then no farther. Gratton’s technique for fleshing out the admittedly nuanced characters is to continually interrupt the flow of the present-day story with flashbacks, often going over aspects of the story that the characters have already expressed in present day dialogue, or underscoring something about the character that is already well established or a moot point because the character has just been killed. It suggests both that Gratton doesn’t sufficiently trust her worldbuilding and that her editor wasn’t brutal enough. The stutter-stop of the story became irritating early on, and I was constantly impatient for the novel to progress in a real way and the various plot beats I expected from the source material to occur. (Some of them – a character’s blindness, a duel – were transferred to other players, while other plotlines were altered or cut; the most notable was that Rory (Edgar) never disguises himself as a mad beggar.)

There’s a gem in here that would have shone the brighter if the story were tightened and the page count cut in half. Here’s hoping that in future efforts, Gratton will believe in herself more and her editor will exercise more ruthlessness.

This review and more like it in the July 2018 issue of Locus.

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