With The Fate of the Tearling (2016), Erika Johansen concludes her QUEEN OF THE TEARLING trilogy, which began in 2014’s The Queen of the Tearling and continued in 2015’s The Invasion of the Tearling. Fans of this YA series have eagerly waited for answers to questions posed throughout the preceding books: What makes Queen Kelsea Glynn special, and why can she experience memories and lifetimes that aren’t her own? What is the significance of the magical blue sapphires she wears, and why does the Red Mort Queen crave them so desperately? And now that Kelsea is in the hands of the Mort Army, what will become of her and her beloved Tearling subjects? Will the Mace need to rescue her, or will Kelsea be able to rescue herself?
There may be, by necessity, some mild spoilers in this review for The Queen of the Tearling and The Invasion of the Tearling, as this is a series which needs to be read in chronological order. In the interest of clarity, since we treated the bulk of this review as a conversation, we’ve marked Ray’s contributions in black text and Jana’s in blue.
Ray: Once again, Kelsea oscillates between the present and past, but this time it’s not Lily’s head who she’s in. Instead it is Katie whose story we follow in The Fate of the Tearling, a teenage girl growing up in post-crossing Tearling at the very first stages of its foundation. Here we meet other familiar characters, in what becomes a kind of Tearling origins story. Row Finn, our big baddie who materialises in flames, is now nothing but another angsty teen with his own big ideas about what their new society should be. The Fetch is also present and accounted for, no longer the mysterious dark stranger who leaves Kelsea’s knees a-quiver, but an equally listless teen with more brawn than brains to be an entirely convincing counterpart to his present-day self.
Katie is actually one of the relatively more interesting characters in this book. Like any teen, she is full of internal conflicts and has quite a meaty growth arc. She must learn to come to terms with her place in this new society and also decide whose vision of what the Tearling should be she supports, for the evil Row Finn and a young Jonathan Tear will come head to head in their ideologies.
The problem with giving so much airtime to a character like Katie, is that ultimately Kelsea herself got a little lost in the mix. Because Kelsea spent so much time in Katie’s head, we hardly got any real sense of Kelsea’s own story (until the end, that is) and I was left feeling that, somewhere along the way, this had stopped being a story about our protagonist.
Jana: I agree completely, Ray. Katie is a really interesting character, and Johansen writes her inner conflict convincingly for the most part; I didn’t buy the love triangle aspect of her plotline, especially since one of the points of that triangle was manipulative and cruel for much of his plotline. But generally, Katie does get a complex storyline as she matures from a child to a young woman, and most of it pays off successfully. Getting to see the fledgling community of William Tear’s new world through her eyes was especially enjoyable because readers have so much background information to judge it against: pre-Crossing Lily’s expectations for what that new world could be, and Kelsea’s knowledge of what that new world has eventually become.
On the other hand, very little of The Fate of the Tearling seems to have anything to do with Queen Kelsea, and there are so many dangling plot threads left over from The Queen of the Tearling and The Invasion of the Tearling that need to be cleaned up in order to give the trilogy a satisfactory ending, that her role in the novel felt even more diminished.
The supporting cast tended to err a little on the unconvincing side. The Mace was as sharp-tongued as ever but the Red Queen, who’d been pretty dastardly until now, suddenly lost any semblance of mystique as she insisted on working with Kelsea. She worked much better when she was aloof and terrifying.
Minor characters such as the plucky Aisa, Father Tyler and kind-hearted Ewen should most definitely have had more of the limelight. They enriched the plot and actually all had great depth to them.
I did like the inclusion of the supporting cast, but I also wanted to see more of them in The Fate of the Tearling. The Mace is fantastic, and any chapter with him in it is going to be a good one. Aisa is growing into a capable, determined young woman, and though many of her positive traits are echoed in Katie, I wanted a better balance of page-time for each of those characters to explore their possibilities. Ewen is a truly good person, and I was so glad to see him experience a heroic moment, the kind his character deserves. But the Red Queen’s shift from Terrifyingly Powerful Unknown Quantity to Half-Mad Fearful Woman-Child was bizarre and, as you say, unconvincing.
Some of our fellow reviewers had previously joked that we should set up a game of Tearling Bingo, for all the tropes that kept cropping up. I thought this series finale actually defied the stereotype. It didn’t feel half as formula-based as the previous works (bar yet another love triangle) which was a definite strength of the novel. However, I sometimes felt a little lost along the way. Because of the oscillation between past and present, I got the impression that Johanssen wasn’t herself sure which part of the story she wanted to focus on. It almost seemed as though the different strands of the plot should’ve been two entirely different stories.
What struck me as strange about The Fate of the Tearling is that Queen Kelsea’s storyline actually becomes the framing device for everything Johansen needs the reader to know about Katie’s storyline. Sure, it’s less formulaic (in most areas) than the previous two books, but as the QUEEN OF THE TEARLING trilogy has gone on, the central focus has wandered away from Kelsea and her magical sapphires and into concurrent plots which blend the present and distant past. I would have loved more attention to either Kelsea or Katie here, perhaps even as different novels.
Whilst Kelsea was complex enough not to be labelled as “good” or “evil”, some of the other plot aspects were a little too black and white. The evil children, for instance — they felt a little bit obvious. And yes, it’s shocking that the guards have to kill the little munchkins, but I feel like something a little more subtle would’ve gone much further. Also, linking bad guys and religion. It’s been done before and it was ultimately distracting from the story.
I didn’t think the army of evil children was handled well — if Johansen had either made them way over-the-top scary or a far more subtle creeping terror, they would have been more effective. The link between the Church and the threat to the Crown is absolutely distracting and desperately needs more subtlety since it becomes a crucial plot point. It’s unfortunate that Johansen drifts into caricature here, because it seems unnecessary and doesn’t serve the story.
However (and this is a big however) whilst for the majority of The Fate of the Tearling I couldn’t quite decide whether I was enjoying it or not, the ending changed everything. This is in large part due to the fact that it really isn’t the ending that I think readers are going to expect. And I am sure it will infuriate some of them. But I actually found it really compelling, out of its sheer audacity and refusal to fit any kind of mould. In what becomes a whopper of a twist, many will be surprised not to find a big shiny bow on the protagonist’s story, and will instead be left questioning the nature of what a happy ending entails and the sacrifices our heroine has to make.
I feel differently about the ending — it left me scratching my head and with a lot more questions than answers. It’s certainly unexpected, and Johansen takes a big risk, which I have to applaud if for no other reason than that I don’t think people will want to see anything less than a perfectly happy ending. There are huge sacrifices, and it involves a difficult choice which someone in a regent’s position would feasibly be entrusted with; the decision which could be made reflects the kind of regent that person would be, and I think that Johansen stays true to the characters she created. In that regard, whether I like the trappings of the end result, I think she made the best authorial choice.
On the other hand, as the trilogy has progressed from The Queen of the Tearling to The Invasion of the Tearling and now concluded with The Fate of the Tearling, Kelsea has spent so much time living in other women’s minds and timelines that I came to care more about people who died hundreds of years before Kelsea was born, rather than becoming deeply invested in Kelsea’s struggles as a monarch. The uncertain young woman we meet in the first book gradually falls by the wayside as she (and the reader) is forced to step into Lily and then Katie’s shoes, and each of those other women’s circumstances become more compelling and captivating than Kelsea’s. It’s a risky gamble for any author to take, and I don’t think Johansen quite pulls it off. I applaud her efforts and her audacity, but this concluding volume feels rushed, and I would have happily waited a few extra months for a book that seemed a little more solid and sure of itself.
One thing that can be said about the ending of The Fate of the Tearling for certain is that it’s going to get people talking and divide opinion, and whether you liked it or not, that in itself is a pretty laudable trait. Whilst this may not be the strongest book in the QUEEN OF THE TEARLING trilogy, Jana and I are both in agreement that Johansen has created a highly interesting world with a compelling central character. Jana made the excellent point that for the trilogy to feel less disjointed, perhaps the novels would’ve worked better with The Queen of the Tearling focusing on a pre-Crossing Lily, The Invasion of the Tearling focusing on a post-Crossing Katie, and The Fate of the Tearling ending with Kelsea’s attempts to fix the mistakes of the past. Nonetheless, fans that have stuck with Kelsea until now will no doubt enjoy this explosive and unexpected ending to our feisty heroine’s story.