Tessa Gratton: The Queens of Innis Lear

This was supposed to be the BL community’s first buddy read on the new site, but unfortunately it quickly ended up being a DNF for me.  Though after nobody else seems to have liked all of the book, either, I at least don’t feel like a spoil-sport anymore. I guess that’s something after all — and now that all those who did hang in there until the bitter end have finished it, I can at last post my DNF rantreview.

The maximum failure represented in a DNF is a shame in more senses than one, though. Because I don’t actually like Shakespeare’s King Lear a whole lot. I do recognize the skill exhibited in its writing — but I don’t care one bit for the way in which either of Lear’s daughters are portrayed; and Lear himself is one of two Shakespearean titular characters (the other one being Othello) whom I constantly want to shake and yell at them, “Don’t be so f*cking obtuse!” So Gratton had a truly stellar opportunity of outdoing Shakespeare with a pastiche even in the eyes of a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the Bard here. Unfortunately, she thoroughly wasted it. With knobs on.

So what happened?

Well, Gratton almost managed to push me right out of the book for good with the opening sentences, which are so pretentiously, wannabe-esoterically overwritten that I actually had to repeat them several times to even be able to make a modicum of sense of them. The only reason why I didn’t stop right then and there was because I was tired when I started the book, so I was willing to cut her some slack and put this one down to me. (It isn’t, though. I reread the opening later on when fully awake. It really is every bit as awful as it had come across upon first impressions.)

Then she proceeded to absolutely suffocate me with words — some (few) beautiful, I’ll give her that, but the vast majority (decidedly over 90%) either superfluous, pointless, trite and clichéd or, again, pretentious beyond belief — or (in fact, in the majority of cases) all of the above. Instead of letting my brain create her imaginary world in my mind, helped along by a carefully-crafted narrative and judicious use of language, she instantly drowned every budding attempt of my imagination to take to its wings and tethered it firmly back down to her flow of excess verbiage, which had moved on unerringly while my mind had been making its fleeting attempts to break free; without, however, advancing the story, plot, character development, world building or anything else by even a single iota. The net effect of this was to make me fall clean asleep while soaking in a hot bath, during my second attempt of giving the book a chance.

I still had hopes we might possibly get somewhere eventually, though. By this time I’d met AragornRomeoEdmund Bran the Fox, and I was still at least mildly curious where she was going to take the story with him. True, it sounded like she was deviating from Shakespeare here, and chances were pretty good (or bad?) already that she wasn’t doing so because she’d had a brilliant idea that had somehow eluded the Bard, but simply because she hadn’t understood the play — nor the fact that a Shakespearean play (a tragedy, at that) is an intricately-woven tapestry where pulling and reweaving even a single thread destroys the whole pattern irrevocably.

Well, at least Goneril Gaela and Regan and, for that matter, JulietCordElia (why alter the names of two of Lear’s daughters but not the third one?) seemed to be behaving roughly to type. Not any more pleasant than in the play, where incidentally it only takes a single sentence out of either of their mouths (or in Cordelia’s case, stunned and protracted silence) after we’ve met them to tell us, in essence, who they are. Whereas Gratton spent several chapters introducing the three of them, but except for one thing that I’ll address separately in a minute, she didn’t actually add any essential thing to their characters — again, she just dressed them up in a lot of extra plumage and made sure not to leave anything up to the reader’s imagination.

In the process, she also managed to thoroughly spoil the big stunner with which Shakespeare — purposefully and advisedly — opens his play. In the real King Lear, both the King’s announcement that he will be dividing his realm among his daughters and his rejection of his (heretofore) darling Cordelia, for being insufficiently lavish in her praise of his person and insufficiently boastful in her promises of just what bed of roses she will devote to his sole comfort in the future, is at the heart of the opening scene. And although we have not yet met any of these characters, it takes Shakespeare approximately 0.01% of Gratton’s verbiage to convey to a shocked audience that something absolutely unthinkable has just happened. Whereas in Gratton’s book, after many and unvaried foreshadowings of “everything being put in its proper place”, you would have to be about a hundred times more obtuse than Shakespeare’s Lear or actually have slept through everything until that very scene — meaning, easily through the first 15-20% of the book (judging by the glacial pace of the plot development: I didn’t even get that far, as I quit at the 14% point) — in order to register even the faintest bit of surprise.

Yet, if the whole thing had merely been a matter of excessive wordiness, I might even have finished the book. It would have been guaranteed a low rating — but I would have stuck with it, for the buddy reading experience if nothing else. Alas, I just couldn’t. Not counting my failed attempt to get into the book on the very first evening, I decided to DNF on day 3, essentially for these reasons:

(1) From Ban’s and Elia’s thought processes concerning each other, it was becoming increasingly clear very early on that Gratton was not only rewriting Edmund/Bran’s character, but she was actually setting out to finagle what she apparently thought to be Romeo and Juliet‘s core plotline into the whole thing as well.

Note to Ms. Gratton: Before you try to mess with any work by another author, at least make a good faith attempt to understand the essence of what you’re messing with. It is abundantly clear that in this instance, you have not bothered to do so. The essence of King Lear is neither Edmund nor Cordelia, nor any of the three sisters for that matter. It’s Lear himself. The essence of Romeo and Juliet aren’t these two characters as such (or at the very least not alone), but their ruin — and hence, the annihilation of both of their families’ entire futures — as a consequence of said families’ enmity. To give a widely-quoted summary (Laurence Olivier was fond of using it, so why shouldn’t I?), each of Shakespeare’s great tragedies is concerned with one theme only, and it’s essentially the same theme in every single play: namely, the way in which the central character, however powerful, rich and / or apparently perfect at the beginning, is slowly and inexorably destroyed by one single, ultimately fatal flaw — like a perfect marble statue that sustains a minor fissure, which fissure however gradually widens and spreads more and more, until the whole statue eventually cracks apart and falls down in ruin.

Each of the plays’ other characters has a distinct and specific role to play — but all of them are framed in subservience of the respective play’s central conflict. That of course doesn’t mean that in retelling the story you can’t use any of these other characters as POV characters. But beware, because at some point you’re going to have to make up your mind: Either be honest and say that your work was inspired by certain motifs of such and such play by Shakespeare. Or stick to the Bard’s own scheme. Do NOT go out, as Gratton would seem to have done, and tell the world you wanted to show how Shakespeare really should have told his own story. That’s not only as pretentious as roughly 98% of your verbiage, it also shows you up for precisely the idiot you are — particularly once it becomes clear that you don’t have a clue that Edmund is chiefly a catalyst, not a principal; ditto Cordelia (or well, a symbol, but certainly not a fully-developed principal … because Shakespeare just didn’t need her to be that). I’d even go so far as to say that not even Goneril and Regan are Lear’s main antagonists; his one true antagonist is Lear himself, or more precisely his vanity. And Gratton’s cluelessness as to the essence of Shakespeare’s writing becomes even more apparent with her setting out to make Ban and Elia some sort of star-crossed lovers. Err, excuse me?! So our author really did not only miss the point of King Lear but also that of Romeo and Juliet? I didn’t even want to find out how as a result she managed to also mangle the relationship between Lear and Gloucester, or between Lear and Kent for that matter. Or Edmund’s later interactions with Goneril and Regan. — What had started as mild unease when Ban was first introduced as a POV character (with half his attributes blatantly stolen from Tolkien’s Aragorn to boot, “Strider” personality and all) soon developed into a case of severe stomach cramps.

(2) At the same time, and just as importantly, the one element that Gratton chooses to highlight in introducing Gaela and Regan is their gender and sexuality — however NOT in an even remotely informed way but, rather, by jacking up discriminatory stereotype to a level that even Shakespeare himself refrained from spelling out for his audience’s benefit.

* Major facepalm *

This actually takes some doing, as the Bard’s own Lear, after all, famously has this to say about women (talking about his own daughters Goneril and Regan at the time):

“Down from the waist they are centaurs, though women all above. But to the girdle do the gods inherit; beneath is all the fiends’. There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulfurous pit — burning, scalding, stench, consumption!”

Now, this charming bit of misogyny comes at the moment when Lear has finally clued into the fact that he’s been had by the pair of them all along, so one might possibly pardon him the odd bit of hyperbole, were it not for the fact that he’s still blaming every bad thing that’s been happening to him of late exclusively on others, instead of engaging in a bit of sober self-reflection. But be that as it may, ever since feminist literary criticism has been a thing, genuinely intelligent rewrites of King Lear from a woman’s point of view have taken great pains to have Goneril and Regan take ownership of their sex, both in terms of gender and in terms of an enlightened view of female sexuality.

But what does Gratton do instead? She actually gets on the fast lane and tries to overtake the Bard’s Lear, by dumping on GonerilGaela and Regan one of the most vicious anti-female stereotypes of all times; one that women have battled against literally since the dawn of time: the idea of barrenness as an indication of evil. Self-selected barrenness in GonerilGaela’s case (who thus misses her sole God-given function on Earth, namely to be a mother, and instead uses her sexuality to taunt and subdue her husband), and barrenness as ordained by Mother Nature in Regan’s case (because someone as vile as her is just not fit to bear children, so great is the risk that she might pass on her evil nature to her offspring).

Add to that some sort of equally twisted “my sister, my one true love” schtick between Gaela and Regan — all with overtones of a snake pit set in a bed of pointed spears — and all I wanted to do was retch.

DNF’ing, at this point, became a matter of self-preservation — or at least, of the restoration of my peace of mind. Which the members of the Detection Club effortless achieved by way of the collection Six Against the Yard

8 thoughts on “Tessa Gratton: The Queens of Innis Lear

      1. Indeed.
        A buddy read should be fun, even if you hate it. Much like when I read that Heyer book with 2 ladies on booklikes for some reason or other. I hated it with a passion but it was still fun.
        This sounds like you didn’t get even the fun part of the buddy part. And that totally deserves a ‘bummer’ 🙁

        But here’s to hoping the next group read turns out better. Because it has to, right? 😀

  1. I can see this was a horrible experience for you, but for me, reading your review was a highlight! 😀
    As a side note, I do hate retellings of classics. The gall and idiocy and hubris of the new authors is one thing, but the inescapable destruction of the source material in the process of inflating the author’s ego and delivering a MESSAGE, always in capital letters, makes me foam at the mouth.

    1. My sentiments exactly. Though, even when it‘s not about any particular message I typically don‘t do well with pastiches. They‘re almost always either the product of someone thinking they can outdo the original author (never mind that the original has survived for a reason … which it is unlikely for anybody to be able to replicate, unless they are a literary genius themselves— which is highly unlikely) … or they‘re the product of someone‘s greed (typically the publisher‘s or whoever else has commissioned the pastiche). And in either case, the hubris involved knows no bounds.

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