The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
Queen of the Tearling #1
When Kelsea Raleigh turns nineteen, nine hardened soldiers turn up at the door to the isolated cottage where she’s grown up under the care of her now-elderly foster parents, Carlin and Barty. She knew the day would come, she’s always known who she is and what she’s been prepared for – and why she was hidden. Until now. At nineteen Kelsea has inherited the throne from her long-dead mother, Queen Elyssa, a woman she’s never known but has built up in her head as wonderful, good. The Peacemaker Queen, they call her mother, because of the treaty she signed with the Red Queen of Mortmesne twenty-five years ago that ended the Mort invasion just as it reached the walls of the Queen’s Keep – but not before the Mort army marched across Tear, sowing destruction and fear, raping and plundering as they went. The survivors of that invasion still have fresh memories, and everyone is afraid of Mortmesne and its long-lived queen.
Kelsea leaves the only home she’s ever known to travel across the Tear to the capital, knowing that her life is in danger every day. Her uncle, the Regent, has hired assassins to kill her before she can reach the Keep, but it’s the infamous thief known only as the Fetch who holds her life in his hands. Fulfilling her destiny to be crowned as queen of the Tearling is only the first step in Kelsea’s dangerous new life. When she discovers the realities of the treaty her mother signed, she makes a decision that will forever mark her as a very different queen from her vain, unintelligent mother – and set her country on the brink of war.
I decided not to go into the plot too much in this review because this was a Fantasy I started reading with little knowledge or pre-conceived ideas, and partly as a result of that I absolutely loved this book. Even the ARC’s proud proclamation that, months before the book has even been released, it’s already in the works to be turned into a movie starring Emma Watson, didn’t really affect me or my expectations. (And I always ignore the comparisons publicists make between this book and that one; I recommend others do the same.) The only thing I thought I understood, going into it, was that it was a YA fantasy – mostly because (and this probably sounds silly but blame successful marketing) my ARC is trade paperback-sized – and only YA prints in trade paperback size for genre fiction. (I’ve no idea what the actual book will look like, as it’s not out yet.)
So, I went into this story not quite knowing what to expect, but hoping for a good story that I could sink my teeth into. That’s precisely what I got, and more.
This one goes under my “magic and mystery” sub-category, because it’s got plenty of both. I am, like other readers, leery of magically-endowed artefacts – in fact, they generally put me off from even picking up a book. It’s always either a sword (popular phallic symbol used by male authors) or jewellery (used by both male and female authors – is it meant to symbolise the womb?). In this case, it’s jewellery, a magical sapphire necklace that Kelsea has worn since she was born. There’s an identical twin to the necklace that her mother had worn, which Carlin gives Kelsea after she turns nineteen. The sapphire has a life of its own and soon starts to enable Kelsea to see through the eyes of others; it can give her superhuman strength and even kill without a mark. We don’t know where these necklaces came from or where any of the magic came from – in fact, the history of this world, such an intrinsic part of the world-building, remains a bit of a puzzle.
From early on, there’s talk of “the Crossing” and life “pre-Crossing”. We then learn a few more details that lead us to think that in our own future, we abandoned Earth, took to the stars, and colonised another planet. That interpretation, based on fairly vague facts, holds up until near the end, when what I took to be figurative references to “sea” or “ocean” suddenly become literal. Our descendants have abandoned the world as we know it, but for what or where exactly? Was the incredibly dangerous ocean they Crossed – an ocean that sank the all-important medical ship and drowned all the doctors and nurses on board – some kind of portal between worlds? A portal full of water? The possibilities are mind-bending, and I hope Johansen is going somewhere with this or I’ll be extremely pissed off. In general, the details we’re given about the establishment of the new colonies – headed up by different countries (apparently America and Britain teamed up to create the Tearling, but we’re also told it was also founded by a man called William Tear who had a utopian vision; not sure how the two work together, and I can’t quite imagine the US and UK becoming besties for such a huge thing) – are teetering on the edge of believability. They could easily fall one way or the other, depending on Johansen. Poorly executed world-building can sink a story in a second; on the other hand, if all the pieces come together and coalesce into something strong, vivid and plausible, then you’ve got a winner. We’ll just have to see, on that score.
Where the story really excels is in the creation of the heroine, Kelsea, who feels very modern (contemporary to us) and personable; she’s smart, compassionate, brave and honourable. She’s succeeding two rather rotten rulers, her own mother and uncle, and her kingdom is on the brink of utter ruin. If you’re not lucky enough to be born into the nobility, who own all the land and control everything, you’re a peasant slaving away on their land for next to nothing, or some other menial labourer in the city. Attitudes towards women have markedly declined, there’s no education, no books except those hoarded by a few people like Carlin – and no appreciation for them, either. The dominating religion, the Church, is a bastardised mix of Catholicism and Protestantism that uses the Bible mostly as a prop; it’s rotten to its core. The people of the Tearling have known hardship like you can barely comprehend – far worse than in our own Medieval period upon which traditional fantasy is so commonly based. Despite being descendants of us, they’ve lost not only a great deal of modern technology and learning in the Crossing, but also the humanity we continue to strive for. A sense of what’s “right”, an end to the exploitation of children, women, indigenous groups etc., the valuation of literacy and education, of workers’ rights. All gone, it seems, in this new world.
The odds are stacked up high against Kelsea. Now queen of a nearly bankrupted country with few resources, a weakened and illiterate population, rotten and corrupt from the inside by a few powerful people who seek only to protect their own interests (sounds familiar) and a powerful, strong and aggressive country looming over them, it’s part of what makes this story compelling, seeing Kelsea – someone we can relate to so easily – come in and try to make changes. We know from the beginning that she survives her crowning and becomes a legendary queen – the Glynn Queen – so there’s no uncertainty on that score. The tension comes, instead, from how it all happens. How does she defeat her enemies? How can she repair such a damaged and festering kingdom? It also comes from the so-far unanswered questions and mysteries surrounding other characters and history: who is the Fetch, and is he even human? How has the Red Queen stayed young for over a hundred years, and what is she doing to herself to achieve it? What is the dark thing she summons, and what are its goals? What is the Mace’s story? (The Mace, as he’s nicknamed, is Kelsea’s “right hand man” and leader of the Queen’s guard: fearsome, terrifying, knowledgeable.) What’s the deal with the sapphires, and where exactly is this new world?
With a fast-paced plot and a comfortable, smooth writing style, Johansen has written a compelling and engaging fantasy novel taut with adult themes and gut-punching realities. She’s started me on a journey into the heart and blackened soul of a corrupt world – a world inhabited for only a couple of centuries yet already suffering from human occupation. The machinations, treachery, bloodshed and grief are all too real, and it even had me crying till I couldn’t read the words on the page at the end. Yes, it snared me. It will make a good movie, too. I’m indecisive over how original it is – certain key elements reminded me straight away of the YA fantasy series, Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson (which I also loved). It follows a familiar fantasy formula yet because of its futuristic setting, it’s history based in our world, and the resulting mix of attitudes and adopted customs, it does tread on some fresh ground. Ultimately, it’s well-written fantasy that you can curl up with and sink into. I don’t even want to know how long I’ll have to wait till the next book; I want to read it now, I’m not ready to put aside these characters and all those puzzles.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.
Check out more stops on the tour here.
“I found The Queen of Tearling to be a compelling book I wanted to read to the end. It held my interest and entertained me, but it was not without its faults. I’ll still be interested in the sequel, but I this book didn’t shatter my heart or tug at my soul the way books with similar themes have done.” Wrapped Up in Books
“This is a very strong, confident start to a series that offers us yet another interesting take on this sub-genre.” Brainfluff
“When I die, I want inscribed on my gravestone ‘She Read The Queen of the Tearling.’ Call me unambitious, but that shall be counted among my proudest accomplishments, because never have I ever read a more painfully long, worthless book.” The Book Nookery
Missed yours? Leave me a link and I’ll add it.