The Queens of Innis Lear – Review

‘This is a family squabble that will tear the roots from the earth and pull the stars from the sky if you allow it!’

Even as I read the first few pages of this book, I was thinking of how best to describe it in this review. To be honest, after the prologue and the first chapter, I thought this review may be like my review of The Idiot – that is to say, a bit of a non-review as I wasn’t going to continue with the book. It was incredibly slow. It was dense. It was stilted. Flowery. Lush. Intricate. Ornate. These words and more thrummed inside my brain as I read. This novel was split into five parts. It had seven different point of view characters, and it felt as though every other chapter was a flashback, one which slowed down the pacing and which was unncessary to my understanding of the narrative. That being said, thank goodness I’ve read and studied King Lear on multiple occasions – while I don’t think you need to have read or seen the play before reading this, it was honestly the only thing that kept me from putting this book down. I love the play, and so I persevered. At times I enjoyed seeing the subtle, and not so subtle, references to the original text. A 568 page epic fantasy based on one of my favourite Shakespeare plays… I should have loved this. Given it five stars, displayed it proudly on my bookshelf – yes, I did buy this for the plot and not just the shiny cover. But I didn’t love it. Although there were bits that I liked, overall it was all just too much.

She entered the cave. The floor was sand; her boots sank into watery puddles and the meager warmth of the sun vanished. Layers of rock, slick with algae and striped gray with pale green stratification, cut away, curving deeper. Salty, wet-stone-smell filled her nose, and she even tasted the delicate flavor of dark earth on her tongue. The air seeped with it.

We not only get the points of view of Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, but also (to keep using their play names) Edmund, Edgar, the King of France and a new character, Aefa, the daughter of the Fool. There were too many characters, and I didn’t care for all of their viewpoints, leading me to skim a little in places. Although many characters were more fleshed out and made more complex – we see much more of Cordelia, Edmund is more of a hero, and the King of France is more than just a plot device – some didn’t need to be fleshed out. They didn’t even need to be in the story. While I appreciate the effort the author put into her reiventions of these well known characters, their world, and even the plot – the narrative is basically the same as the play, but with many twists and changes – it felt as though there had been too much effort. I always felt a step removed from the world, never fully immersed – and that’s saying something for such a large book. The famous storm scene didn’t occur until almost 400 pages in.

But the land didn’t care. The island stormed. The island knew what this king had done, and not done, what he had betrayed – it knew his veins no longer bled rootwater.
He had lost all.
He had nothing.
No crown, no castle, no daughters, no wife.
The stars had abandoned him, even his most favorite star. He was nothing.
The island was all.

I can’t deny the fact this book was dense, nor the fact its pacing was uncertain, and the ending rather flat. Nor the fact it seemed like most of the action was crammed into the final 200 pages or so. But I also can’t deny that, when I finally got into the book, when I better understood the world’s magic system and religion, that it was a very rich retelling. I read this book over the course of three days, but for two of those days I dedicated pretty much the entire day to reading it. You really need to put in time and effort with this one. Was it worth it? For me, I can’t say that it was. Although I liked many of the characters, and the way the author has interpreted them, and although I came to appreciate the intricacies of the world she had created, it still felt stiff and stilted no matter how much I read. I honestly only kept reading because of the fact it was a retelling of King Lear. The things I do because of my Shakespeare obessesion…

‘I do not allow stars or prophecy to dictate my choices. They are a tool, nothing more.’

This was certainly not a case of ‘nothing will come of nothing’ – there was definitely a good story here – but unfortunately it was buried under layers of complex wordbuilding, flashbacks, and far too many characters. I suppose Polonius did have a point after all: ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’.

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