Goodreads: The Queen of the Tearling
Series: The Queen of the Tearling #1
Published: July 2014
Nineteen-year-old Kelsea Glynn is heir to the Tearling throne, but may not live to be crowned queen. As a baby, she was stolen away from the castle and raised in secret by servants. After the death of her mother, Queen Elyssa, her regent uncle ruled as the puppet of the Red Queen, the cruel tyrant (and rumored witch) of neighboring Mortmesne–a nation that has subdued the surrounding realms and looks to solidify its control over the Tearling. Now of age to take her rightful place on the throne, Kelsea plans to restore the independence of the Tearling and to erase her family’s legacy of bad politics. But first she must not only survive the journey to the castle but also win the love and support of her people.
The Queen of the Tearling possesses its share of flaws, from confused world-building to a weak villain. However, a plot full of intrigue, a compelling protagonist, and a commitment to avoiding many standard fantasy tropes all mark the book as a stunning debut–and Ericka Johansen as an author to watch. If The Queen of the Tearling remains an engrossing read even with its flaws, the sequels stand a good choice of being even better as the author matures.
The story begins in a familiar enough vein–the lost heir to the throne, raised by servants in the wilderness, prepares to return to her true home. Young and naive, however, she needs to earn her throne, not simply claim it. Enter a host of loyal Queen’s Men, sworn to Kelsea’s mother before her birth and ready to die for her now, even though they have never met. These are the men who will help Kelsea fight her way to the palace and help to keep her alive once she is there. They are led, of course, by an older, scarred man with a mysterious past. Standard fare, right?
Had the story continued in this vein, The Queen of the Tearling would have been interesting, but not outstanding. However, Johansen soon makes it clear she cannot only use fantasy tropes but also play with them. Thus, we avoid any romances with the older guardsman as well as with the intriguing outlaw. We do not have a princess who can gain the goodwill of the people simply by showing her dimples but one who is, we are constantly reminded, considered ugly and who thus needs to gain respect through her political savvy and her devotion to her subjects. We do not have a villain who is pure evil, but one who, according to the book, shares many traits with Kelsea–she just chooses to use them for her own gain rather than for the good of her kingdom. All this suggests that the story will continue to surprise readers as it goes forward.
Unfortunately, the story lacks a solid location. The beginning of the book seems to be set in a typical pseudo-medieval land (with magic), but tidbits dropped throughout the story reveal that the story actually takes place in a version of our own world. A future version. The Americans and the British apparently travelled to a new land in something called the Crossing, but lost all doctors and technology along the way. So they know about things like genetics and how genetics work, but cannot actually use any such medical knowledge to anyone’s advantage. The explanation could use some more details to flesh it out and make it make more sense. For example, I remain unsure where in our world the Americans and British who founded the Tearling and the surrounding countries landed and I do not recall reading anything about what happened to the rest of the world, ensuring that the people who crossed could not simply import more technology. Furthermore, the lack of technology really does nothing for the plot, since the lands simply operate as medieval lands, not as dystopic ones. Unless this element of the story becomes more important in subsequent books, I can only conclude that The Queen of the Tearling wants to capitalize on the current craze for dystopias.
The villain, too, falls short when compared to the antagonists in other fantasies. Johansen could have contrasted Kelsea brilliantly with her nemesis the Red Queen, highlighting their similarities while revealing how their choices and not their talents ultimately define their differences as rulers. However, I fail to see how Kelsea and the Red Queen overlap in terms of characteristics, aside from a certain ambition and a little ruthlessness. Kelsea is young, naive, and determined to protect her people from moral outrages and from foreign subjugation. The Red Queen rules an empire, but apparently her ambition ends there because she really does not want to put in the effort to conquer the few independent lands left and she spends her days, not ruling her kingdom, but by using slaves for her pleasure. And, though she ought to be scary, considering the rumors that label her a witch, she is revealed in perspective switches to be utterly afraid of the new teenage Queen of the Tearling. So much for an impressive villain.
Despite the apparent ineptitude of the Red Queen, her fear of Kelsea is still rather amusing because Kelsea, ironically, is completely ignorant of politics and recent Tearling history. That’s right. The servants who raised her to be queen omitted from her education nearly everything about current affairs as well as the entire history of her mother’s reign, because the former queen requested it. So Kelsea arrives on the throne not knowing what is actually happening in her country, not knowing anyone or their functions in the country, not even knowing what laws were passed in recent years. So her captain of the guards becomes her unofficial advisor, essentially running the Tearing since he knows what’s happening in it and Kelsea does not. Kelsea, of course, rather resents the fact that her captain thinks her incapable of running a country and burns to prove herself, but it’s hard not to agree with the man. Kelsea is really, really lucky he genuinely wants the good of the people and not anything for himself. I have to question, however, why no one else thinks it weird that the captain of the guard has become a political advisor overnight.
Finally, the characterization of the Church could very well be accounted the final major flaw in the work. Like many books, The Queen of the Tearling claims that the Church is not any specific church, but readers would be hard pressed not to identify it with the Roman Catholic Church, especially considering mentions of papal affairs. As usual the Church is utterly evil because…it’s a church? A church with leaders who have become too embroiled in government and worldly affairs and have lost their moral compass would not be unrealistic, but the practice of using “church” as a synonym for “evil and corrupt” without any explanation seems lazy and sloppy in the context of a fantasy novel–a novel that relies heavily on world-building to place the readers. Furthermore, it remains unclear exactly how the church gained so much power because, if I recall, the founder of the Tearling was an atheist who didn’t hold with any religious authority (Kelsea is the same). A little aside on how the church grew so much and became corrupt would have useful, especially since Kelsea has to navigate church/government relationships in the story.
These flaws, however, never overshadowed the other excellent elements of the book–at least not for me. Kelsea is a wonderful protagonist, a girl who knows her own mind and is committed to making her mark on the world and helping her people. Since she is young, however, she makes mistakes, sometimes ones that have huge and disastrous consequences. Indeed, even before being crowned, she commits her country to war. Readers may find her reckless or even stupid, but she is certainly interesting and I always waited eagerly to see how she would handle various tricky situations. I have a soft spot for young protagonists finding their way in the world, and the story certainly would not be realistic if a teenage queen with no knowledge of politics began as a wise ruler.
The other characters are interesting as well, and I do not mean simply the usual ones–the tough captain with a soft heart underneath or the Robin Hood-esque outlaw who steals with style but adheres to no moral code. Every character is richly drawn, so that even seeming bit players like the guard at the gate become three-dimensional characters with background and depth. The perspective switches worked in this book, highlighting the various players without seeming too jarring.
Even after I consider the flaws in The Queen of the Tearling, I still find myself eagerly awaiting the sequel. Aside from watching how the politics unfold or delving deeper into the various mysteries, I simply want to spend time with Kelsea and the others. I have become invested in their story and am willing to follow them wherever they go, even if the places they go do not always make sense.