Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Microreview [Book]: Lady Hotspur by Tessa Gratton

A heartache-heavy Shakespearean rework that misses the energy of its progenitor

Cover art Larry Rostant; design by Jamie Stafford-Hill
I haven't engaged much with Shakespeare's history plays before last year, but that changed over the course of 2019 as I was able to take advantage of the Globe Theatre's entire "double Henriad" run: from Richard II to Richard III, with 3-6 Henries in the middle depending on whether you count by monarch or by play*. After seeing Richard II in a winter "standalone" production with all women of colour actors (Imperial Radch audiobook narrator Adjoa Andoh played Richard II! That's right, King Breq!), Henry IV was my reintroduction to the company's outdoor theatre, complete with £5 standing tickets, stylish branded ponchos, and - for the second two plays - a summer cold so bad it was all I could do to lean against the stage for 6 hours. All of that just added to the energy of a diversely cast ensemble production, complete with women playing Prince Hal, Hotspur, and Falstaff. My mind, therefore, already had very clear casting for Lady Hostpur's reimagining of Henry IV and was very ready to see how an explicitly female, romantic take on the characters would unfold.

Lady Hotspur opens at a moment covered in the Shakespeare originals by the close of Richard II. Hal has been raised in court as part of the retinue of King Rossavos, who banished her mother ten years ago and has since been dragging the Kingdom of Aremoria further into debt and ruin. When Mum (also known as Celada) returns to claim not just her lands but the throne itself, she makes short work of the King and wastes no time in re-securing her position, despite some lingering Hal finds herself thrown into life as the Crown Prince, while her friend and the former heir Banna Mora falls from favour. Hal's only consolation is her love affair with Hotspur, a noble soldier whose radiance and temper are renowned. Hotspur, however, had her own loyalties to her land and friends, and things come to a head when Mora is captured by neighbouring Innis Lear which readers of Gratton's previous book will probably be very familiar with. For everyone else, myself included, Innis Lear ends up as sort of a cross between Fairyland and Wales, and whose presence causes the increasing distance between the influence text and Lady Hotspur's reimagining. Celada's court and Hal's circle end up divided over Celada's refusal to pay a ransom for her return, separating Hal and Hotspur and ending their relationship but not their mutual attraction. Mora instead entrenches herself in Innis Lear, picking up a magical husband and some prophecies, and the stage is set for some epic politics and warfare.

Except, this is Henry IV Part 1, so the extent to which we get involved in heavy politics is deeply dependent on how Prince Hal is feeling - and, it turns out, she's chafing under her mother's rule, and particularly the expectation that she marry a man for childbearing purposes (Lady Hotspur could be clearer on queer acceptance in the various lands, but the dominant belief in Aremoria appears to be that Hal and Hotspur's relationship is not taboo but should not be flaunted, especially at the expense of political childbearing alliances, whereas Innis Lear appears to be more fluid with things). With the help of Lady Ianta Oldcastle (hey, I understood that reference!) Hal sets up a shadow Court of Rogues in which she can drink and womanise to her heart's content, and generally avoid responsibilities. In the Shakespearean version, Hal's adventures with Falstaff, Poins et al. are treated as fairly uncomplicated, if sometimes quite vindictive and unpleasant, fun; the conflict in the Prince's character only really shows up in scenes with the King, where the weight of expectations is most clearly set out. Because Hal is a viewpoint character for her scenes in Lady Hotspur, however, everything including the Court of Rogues takes on a more morose cast, as she laments the loss of Hotspur and the wider upheaval which her new position has brought, including her inability to continue a friendship with Banna Mora and the expectations her mother has put on her for the future of the Kingdom. Coupled with Ianta Oldcastle's far more gloomy cast as a character who lost her position as founder of the Lady Knights under the previous King and has fallen into alcoholism as a result, there's an air of desperation and falseness about Hal's rebellion which makes it distinctly less enjoyable to witness. And that's not a mood constrained to Hal: Hotspur divides her time between worrying about the warlike machinations of her Aunt and Mother, worrying and being heartbroken over Hal and her unwillingness to step up, and worrying about Banna Mora. And despite their potential to shake things up - and the apparent authorial intent to have it appear as a more positive political space -the scenes and characters in Innis Lear sometimes get lost in slow melancholy of the book, especially with the whole "weight of ancient prophecies and bloodlines" thing hanging over everyone. Basically, this is a long, slow, sad, meditative book, and it's not afraid to make its audience wait multiple chapters between reasons to root for any of its characters.

The problem is, with all this meditative heartbreak, it becomes difficult for Gratton to truly convey the potential dynamism of the three women at Lady Hotspur's heart, despite the textual insistence that they are all something special. This is especially an issue for Hotspur, who we are told burns as bright as the sun, but all we ever really see of her is her constant deflated disappointment in Hal's behaviour and her conflicted, awkward feelings about the slow political and romantic situations she spends 95% of the book responding to. Hal and Banna Mora's respective positions and reputations are generally pretty well-deserved, but play out in a way which really stretches audience sympathy for them both in different ways, and ultimately neither Hal's redemption or Mora's arc into magical uniter of both countries really brought me around to them. The only character who really brings a genuine ray of sunshine into proceedings is Echarmet of Kurake Queen, a scion of one of Celeda's foreign allies (from a matriarchal society which I would definitely read about if the opportunity arose) and potential political match for Hal: and yes, I'm well aware of the irony of picking out one of the very few male characters in Lady Hotspur as a highlight, but Charm is great and deserves justice and nice things forever, OK? In fairness, part of Charm's, uh, charm, is his bringing a non-heteropatriarchal take into Aremoria's court, and essentially becoming one of Hal's lifelines from a direction that she's not expecting, and that's one of the elements that brings things to a still-slow but eventually pretty satisfying (and unexpected!) conclusion.

Ultimately, I suspect my main problem with much of Lady Hotspur is that it sits in the uncanny valley between the production I've watched and internalised as "Henry IV", and a completely standalone text. There's nothing at all wrong with slow, meditative queer medieval politics books, but if you are going to transform your title character from the fast-talking, fast-acting centre of a rebellion, who would literally move entire rivers for the sake of their own power and sense of what is right, into a woman whose only real character decisions are deciding whether or not to be with her feckless true love in the hope of changing her, and subsequently whether to stand behind another character (incidentally, I had to look up who Banna Mora's source character was - either Edmund Mortimer was cut from the version of the play that I watched, or just not interesting enough to remember) is one that's inevitably going to create a lot of "wait, what, why?" over those decisions. I'm not sure if this problem would be solved by lack of familiarity with the play, as well, as the disconnect between what we're shown and what we're told about Hotspur would still be there within the text itself. What I'm left with is something I really wish I'd enjoyed more than I did - a book that took a lot of work for a frankly very modest payoff. I'm still intrigued by what Gratton does next (especially if it involves some of Echarmet's Mothers) but, alas, Lady Hotspur isn't quite the knockout I'd hoped.

*If you're counting by monarch, there are also two uncredited Edwards in there. History is fun!

The Math
Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 It's genderbent queer Shakespeare, and we need more of this sort of thing forever

Penalties: -1 Struggles to portray the dynamism of its leads over their slow heartbreak; -1 I would have preferred a commitment either to being very different or more similar to the source text

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10 "still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore". Read about our scoring system here.

Posted by: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Gratton, Tessa. Lady Hotspur [Tor Books, 2020]