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Tell truth and shame the devil – ‘Lady Hotspur’

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One of the great joys of my job as a critic is the moment of discovery, that indefinable instant when the realization washes over you that a chosen book is even better and more interesting than you’d hoped. I’ve gotten pretty good at curating what makes it from the pile to the page, but sometimes, I get more than I bargained for – in a good way.

I had just such a moment of discovery with Tessa Gratton’s latest book “Lady Hotspur” (Tor, $29.99). It was a book that I had heard a little bit about and was intrigued. Gender-swapped fantasy-flavored loose reimagining of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” certainly sounded like it could be my jam, so I started reading.

What I got was a high fantasy tale of love and loss, of the big wounds of warfare and the quiet cuts of palace intrigue. Set in the same world as Gratton’s earlier “The Queens of Innis Lear,” this new book expands upon that foundation, finding ways to both broaden and narrow the scope. It’s a beautiful and intricate landscape across which compelling characters stride. It’s smart and sweet and occasionally savage … and a heck of a read.

Hal Bolingbroke is one of the most famous (or infamous) of the Lady Knights of Aremoria, a fighting force bound by ties of blood and sisterhood. Few are as bawdy and rowdy as she – even her mentor, the legendary Lady Ianta Oldcastle (a delightful analog for Shakespeare’s clownish knight John Falstaff), notes Hal’s extreme behavior.

But it all changes for Hal when her exiled mother rallies an army to seize the throne for herself. Hal’s loyalties are torn, but she ultimately joins her mother – much to the chagrin of her dear friend Banna Mora, ostensible heir to the childless king. Meanwhile, stuck in the middle is Lady Isarna Hotspur, a legendary knight in her own right who played a major role in leading the new queen’s forces.

Oh, and Hal and Hotspur are in love, which only serves to complicate things.

Banna Mora is cast out, sent back to her homeland of Innis Lear to serve as a governor of sorts. It isn’t long, however, before the Glennadoer clan – led by patriarch Owen and his magical son Rowan – takes her and seeks an alliance. Said alliance could lead to Mora’s ascendance to the throne … if she’s willing to stand against Hal, her best friend from childhood.

Two princes – one reluctant, one revengeful – with the fate of a kingdom hanging in the balance between them. One knight, the proud and noble Hotspur, left in the middle, striving to execute her duty in the best way she can, but unsure of just how to do so. And a prophecy looms over all – a prophecy whose relative truth could make all the difference.

“Lady Hotspur” is a lot of things. It’s a rendition of a fantasy realm both broad and deep, with layers upon layers of detail conspiring to create something vast and immersive; this world contains magic without being ABOUT magic, a difference fantasy too often fails to recognize. It’s a love story made of love stories, each forging its own path while also forming a piece of the larger whole. It is quick-witted and clever and romantic without ever feeling smug or treacly – no small feat.

Credit for that has to go to Gratton, who has a wonderfully florid and occasionally bombastic writing style that suits her narrative choices beautifully. She is equally deft at scene-setting, at expository explorations and at interpersonal dynamics. Whether it’s the wild moors or the palace throne room, whether it is love sought or love caught, all of it is rendered with a robust delicacy of prose. One can almost feel the spirit of Shakespeare drifting between the lines.

It’s important to note that while this book is both a) an extension of a world begun in a previous book, and b) an adaptation of a classic work, your enjoyment of “Lady Hotspur” is not dependent on foreknowledge of either. It is a standalone work in every way, one that tells a complex and compelling story on its own terms, with no reliance on either the book that preceded it or the play that inspired it (though as someone with love for Shakespeare in general and the “Henry” works specifically, I will admit to having more than one moment of delight at references scattered throughout).

“Lady Hotspur” is the finest kind of fantasy, a thoughtful and evocative novel that does honor to its inspiration even as it carves out a wholly new path. Fans of fantasy, Shakespeare or just plain old solid storytelling will find plenty to like here.

Last modified on Wednesday, 22 January 2020 09:24

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