It was the blurb that attracted me – a retelling of Shakespeare’s Henry IV sold this one. I studied the play at school and it sank into my soul. What I hadn’t realised is that this is the second book set in this world of Innis Lear as neither Goodreads or Amazon mention it. However, I think reading The Queens of Innis Lear would have helped enormously. So before picking this one up, go and track down the first book.
BLURB: Hal was once a knight, carefree and joyous, sworn to protect her future queen Banna Mora. But after a rebellion led by her own mother, Caleda, Hal is now the prince of Lionis, heir to the throne. The pressure of her crown and bloody memories of war plague her, as well as a need to shape her own destiny, no matter the cost. Lady Hotspur, known as the Wolf of Aremoria for her temper and warcraft, never expected to be more than a weapon. She certainly never expected to fall in love with the fiery Hal or be blindsided by an angry Queen’s promise to remake the whole world in her own image—a plan Hotspur knows will lead to tragedy. Banna Mora kept her life, but not her throne. Fleeing to Innis Lear to heal her heart and plot revenge, the stars and roots of Innis Lear will teach her that the only way to survive a burning world is to learn to breathe fire. These three women, together or apart, are the ones who have the power to bring the once-powerful Aremoria back to life—or destroy it forever.
Unusually, I’ve included the full blurb as it neatly sums up the dynamic of the plot about three young women who were once firm friends, as their relationships change into a more complex dynamic that has consequences not just for them, but for two kingdoms. This long book (600+ pages) is very ambitious, given it claims to be a retelling of one of the Shakespeare history plays. While there are echoes of that dynamic, I wouldn’t get too hung up on that thread, as there are also important differences that occur very quickly.
It took me a bit of time to really bond with the characters, but then I hadn’t appreciated that this was the second book and I recommend you read the first one before tackling Lady Hotspur. The title is actually misleading as the book equally deals with Prince Hal and Bana Mora just as much as Hotspur. It covers their joint and individual journeys extremely well. Gratton is an accomplished author who drew me into a world of complex magic and layered characterisation so that despite the heftiness of the read, I was held throughout. I was all set to give this one a ten, before I got to the final act and that crucial defining battle…
As I don’t want to lurch into Spoiler territory, you’ll have to bear with me if I’m a tad vague. But the trajectory of the book charts the relationships and competing claims, both personal and societal, upon three young women who already had high expectations thrust upon them. I felt Gratton did an outstanding job in making those genuinely gripping and very poignant – the relationship between Hotspur and Hal was particularly well done, I felt. But I was very dissatisfied with the manner in which the story was tied up. I think Gratton committed the unpardonable sin of raising reader expectations for one type of outcome, only to pull a switch that didn’t convince me at all. The conclusion was far too tidy for such a tortuous journey – by the end, I wasn’t even sure why they went to war at all, given the outcome.
The other issue I had was the role of women in the story. This magical tale is set in a late medieval setting when political marriages secured dynasties and land and Might is Right. Why we suddenly have a cadre of highborn, marriageable women, able to fight in battle alongside their male counterparts, is never fully explained. And I mind. It seems to me that you cannot sweep away all the impediments to women’s full equality within a story without addressing these obstacles, or factoring in a different dynamic that will give these women some tangible advantage in hand-to-hand fighting. Because their ability to prevail against fully armoured men due to their unique skill never convinced me. And I’m not prepared to go with the flow on this one – what sort of message does that give generations of us who watched our male work colleagues sail past us simply because of their genitalia? That we’re not strong enough? That we need magic? Or that just reading about a cosy world where it’s all just different is going to make me feel better? Systemic inequality of opportunity for women is far too widespread to be treated in such a flippant manner.
Furthermore, it’s supposed to be a retelling of a Shakespearean play. He might have been the greatest playwright that ever lived, but he was still a product of his time – so women were never found on the battlefield fighting alongside their men in his stories. If Gratton had wanted to change that aspect after specifically referencing Shakespeare in her worldbuilding, then she needed to spend at least some time and effort demonstrating what made it possible for these women to be able to learn the martial arts and take part in the bloodletting alongside the men. And she doesn’t.
The really aggravating aspect is that it wouldn’t have taken much to have turned this well-written, but slightly flawed effort into an outstanding read, as far as I’m concerned. And despite my real gripes with the book, I am still awarding it a solid eight. But it could have been a ten with just a little bit more thought… The ebook arc copy of Lady Hotspur was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest opinion of the book.