Sunday, August 7, 2022

"Laertes" by Carly Stevens

This book.  Oh, this book!  Where do I even start?

Laertes retells Hamlet from the point of view of an often-overlooked character from the play, Ophelia's brother and Polonius's son, Laertes.  He's only onstage for the beginning and the end of the play, and many people kind of forget about him, except as that guy who has the sword fight with Hamlet at the end.  But I have long felt that Laertes is a key character in the play, especially the way he serves as a foil for Hamlet.  He and Hamlet both lose their fathers to murder, but while Hamlet shies away from revenge and its implications for as long as he can, Laertes embraces it pretty much instantly.  They're like a photo and its negative, one cerebral and fond of reasoning and thinking, and the other a hot-blooded man of action.

And yet, most productions of Hamlet that I've seen have treated Laertes as almost an afterthought, seeming to handing the role to some random dude who looks okay with a sword and can remember his lines.  Only twice have I seen Laertes played to my satisfaction, once by Liev Schreiber in the 2000 film and once by Benjamin Reed onstage in 2018.  And I have seen twenty different productions of the play, which makes that a pretty poor record for presenting this pivotal character in a way that really makes full use of his potential.

All of which means that I got really, really excited when I learned that someone was writing a Hamlet retelling that focused on Laertes.  In fact, I signed up to be a beta reader for this book earlier this year because I wanted to help and encourage Carly Stevens bring it to life in any way I could.  And, I admit, I wanted to beta-read it to see if it was going to live up to my expectations.

It did.

And the finished book is even better.

I was super excited when my copy arrived on release day, since pre-ordered books have a habit of not showing up at my house as soon as I would like them to.  But this one did!  And I immediately began reading it... but slowly.  I savored this book like a square of fine dark chocolate or a really excellent coffee -- enjoying it a nibble or a sip at a time, with plenty of opportunity to enjoy the rich flavor and nuances.

Laertes is set in the 1920s, with a "Dark Academia" aesthetic.  Laertes Belleforest is a Danish expat student in Paris, rooming with two friends in a little apartment above an apothecary shop and enjoying the intellectual and artistic stimulation of the City of Lights.  But when King Hamlet dies suddenly back home in Denmark, Laertes must return home in the middle of the semester to attend the funeral because he and his family are members of the Danish court.  By the time he gets there, the king's brother Claudius has married the widowed Queen Gertrude and gotten himself chosen king, rather than Prince Hamlet. 

Laertes and his sister Ophelia grew up with Hamlet.  While Laertes and Hamlet are more frenemies than friends, they still have the kind of instinctive fondness for each other that people have for someone they've known all their lives.  It's a fondness based on familiarity rather than actual friendship, but that's enough to get Laertes concerned about Hamlet when the young prince starts behaving as if he's mad.  Especially since said prince has been courting Laertes's sister Ophelia for a while now.

If you know Hamlet, you know how this will go.  Madness and murder entangle everyone before the story ends, and almost none of the principal characters survive to the end.  One of the things I liked best about this retelling is that it gave Laertes friends.  He's very alone in Hamlet, and while Hamlet gets to die in the arms of his friend Horatio at the end of the play, Laertes dies alone and friendless.  But in this retelling, Laertes has two dear friends, Henri and Julien, to support and comfort him, and one of them is even there to hold him in his final moments, letting Laertes mirror Hamlet more exactly in death here than he does in the play.

As always, it's the characters that make me love a story, and Laertes himself is such a real-feeling bundle of contradictions, worries, fears, and desires that I can't help wanting to hug him and make everything okay.  And Hamlet here is a complicated, aloof, needy, bold, self-assured, uncertain chap, not quite as likable as I would have written him, but certainly a valid representation of Shakespeare's character.  Ophelia is a wonderful mix of intelligence, fragility, and hope, and I might have loved her more here than I generally do in the play, to be honest.  The original characters of Henri, Julien, and Josephine were all nicely fleshed out, though Josephine less so than the boys.  I might feel that way because I don't like Josephine very well, though, mostly because she makes some very destructive decisions.

Particularly Good Bits:

It was a greeting card type of care--warm from afar, sending me best wishes (p. 11).

She reminded me of Hamlet then, a mind so active that boredom settled like a butterfly any time there was little stimulation (p. 64). 

Her sugared words caught me, but only because I was ready to be caught (p. 120).

The poison of deep grief is as potent as anything bottled (p. 176).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG-16 for intermittent dropping of F bombs just for shock effect by one character, and for an on-page love scene that isn't super detailed, but still gave me the urge to skim ahead until it was over.  It's pretty easy to see coming and just skip on through.


  1. That sounds right up your alley! Very intriguing-sounding, and I love the original character friends. I think that would appeal to me as well!

    1. DKoren, yup, it's almost tailor-made to suit me, isn't it? I'd be interested in your take on this! It a liiiiiitle bit reminds me of the aesthetics in our 2011 noirish version.

    2. Well, I'll let you know shortly... just splurged and bought a copy.

    3. Oh! Thanks for letting me know! I would have sent you a copy for your birthday if you hadn't, and then you'd have two.

    4. I loved this book. Loved all the characters, the angle on the story, the beginning, the ending, the prose. It was quite fantastic!

    5. DKoren, I'm so glad you loved it too!!!! :-D

  2. This is one of my favorite books of 2022--practically perfect in every way (minus the swearing and That Scene). I really, really loved and related to Laertes himself and the whole thing is just soooo well-written.

    1. Eva, yup, I'm quite sure this will be on my top ten list for the year. Just a beautiful book in so many ways.


What do you think?

Comments on old posts are always welcome! Posts older than 7 days are on moderation to dissuade spambots, so if your comment doesn't show up right away, don't worry -- it will once I approve it.

(Rudeness and vulgar language will not be tolerated.)