The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
Before The Queen of the Tearling had even been published, movie rights had been sold and Emma Watson was set to take the lead role (which has now been confirmed, with David Heyman — of Harry Potter fame — as producer). The buzz around this book was hard to ignore, but I was surprised to discover that many of the early reviews had been pretty scathing. Loopholes in the plot was a common complaint, as well as a dislike for the book’s protagonist, Kelsea Glynn. Now, I’m all one for franchise-bashing, and this planned trilogy definitely looks set to become the next Twi-Games, Diver-light, Hunger-Whatever (and comparison to the other YA bestsellers will, no doubt, come) but I am here to put forward the case that it is in a league of its own.
Kelsea Glynn, an only child brought up by her foster parents Barty and Carlin, has led an isolated childhood. Now, at nineteen, the Queen’s Guard have come to escort her to the throne of the Tearling, a throne which she is of the age to inherit. After spending a childhood alone in the forest around her modest home, she is distraught to be leaving the foster parents who have raised and educated her.
On the surface, the book’s opening is a prime set-up for many of the other clone franchises. The nineteen-year-old heroine, whose ignorance of the past is pivotal to the plot; the oppressive governing nation of Mortmesne, a neighbouring kingdom run by an evil Queen. There is even a tribute of citizens that must be made to Mortmesne every month, with a lottery that elects who will be shipped out of the Tearling, doomed never to return. Any tropes sound familiar?
But it soon becomes apparent that The Queen of the Tearling weaves its own original and compulsive plot. The Queen’s Guard, after taking Kelsea from the small cottage in the forest she’s grown up in, soon realise they are being followed. It turns out the Regent — Kelsea’s uncle who is currently throne-sitting after the death of her mother, the previous queen — sent assassins to kill Kelsea. The Guard, loyal to the old queen to the point of death, are having none of it. Kelsea is put under the charge of the Mace, a ridiculously ferocious and brooding soldier, who splits from the group to keep Kelsea out of harm’s way.
The Mace (née Lazarus) manages to fight off the assassins, but then gets captured by a band of rogue bandits that roam the countryside and generally hate the establishment. Poor Mace. What’s a guard to do? Anyway, leader of said bandits is the enigmatically named ‘the Fetch’ (not sure about the author’s insistence on giving everyone a definite article before their names, but whatever). He is intelligent and devastatingly handsome (according to Kelsea) and has absolutely no sexual interest in our future queen. It’s an interesting take on the love interest, and the Fetch will appear again and again throughout this novel, and, I’m sure, have greater resonance in the trilogy as a whole.
Kelsea has inherited a strange blue pendant which she soon discovers glows of its own accord, and seems to hold its own inexplicable source of power. This, coupled with the horses, the kingdoms, the evil queens, nobles and serfs, makes for a much more traditional sort of fantasy novel. However, it is set in the future. ‘The Crossing,’ a significant historical event in the Tearling’s past, is constantly referred to, and it will be interesting to see how this past is explained. There are references to modern medicine and machinery that have long since been lost, and even to ‘the seven volumes of Rowling,’ which have evidently had a great impact on Johansen. It’s a great, original take on the commonplace futuristic dystopian novels that have been churned out by the bucket load in the past few years.
The characters were also delightful to read. Kelsea manages to win the respect and support of the Queen’s Guard, who all prove to be a great cast of accompanying comrades. The Mace in particular was a pleasure to read, with his dark past and his unwavering loyalty to Kelsea. Many of the characters, in fact, are left to be fleshed out, and it becomes apparent that Johansen is setting up a whole tapestry of story threads to return to in the next two parts of the trilogy.
Though classed as fantasy, the world is not as fleshed out and detailed as high fantasy, as with the likes of say, A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE or THE GENTLMAN BASTARD series. It’s a breath of fresh air in a market that’s saturated by vampires and dystopias, and, I reckon, will one day become a classic.
Imagine this as the plot for a fantasy novel: After the Queen’s death nearly twenty years ago, a weak regent has been ruling the kingdom. A group of corrupt guards come up with a plan to depose the regent and install a figurehead queen they control. They search the kingdom and find the least-qualified-for-queenship girl possible; a bumpkin raised in complete isolation who is educated in “the classics” but knows or understands nothing about current events, basic economics or politics. The guards scoop her up to be their puppet, but they don’t know that their bumpkin is under the influence of a powerful magical artifact. Once the reach the capital, the girl, influenced by the artifact, does things that destabilize this badly weakened country even further. To their horror, the guards discover that they can’t control their puppet, who is now installed as a legitimate ruler.
This could be the plot of The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. Every plot point I’ve listed up there fits the book as it is written. I’ve tilted the plot sideways; in the book, the Queen’s Guards, like Kelsea the bumpkin, are the good guys, fighting a shadow government, a weak, incompetent regent and a bellicose neighboring nation. I flipped the story in that opening paragraph to demonstrate a few of the plot and back-story problems.
Despite the fact the Kelsea is terrible queen material and that there is no plausible economic or political underpinning to a rather familiar story, I quite enjoyed The Queen of the Tearling, mainly because of the relationships Kelsea develops with the Queen’s Guards, especially tough-love father-figure Lazarus.
Queen Elyssa was assassinated eighteen years ago and her brother Thomas now sits on the Tearling throne. Kelsea was spirited away to be raised by two Elyssa loyalists, who are possibly the worst queen-in-exile-coaches ever. On her nineteenth birthday, a handful of the Queen’s Guards come to Kelsea’s isolated woodland cottage to escort her to the capital. Kelsea knows very little about her mother and nothing at all about her father. She has a magical sapphire called The Heir’s Jewel. She has been taught nothing about the politics of her nation and given no background on the political stances of various noble families. She understands that the neighboring nation, Mortmain, is powerful and evil, and that it invaded the Tear once, but then withdrew; but she doesn’t know why it withdrew or what its ruler, the magical Red Queen, wants now. Fortified with complete ignorance, she rides off to assume her destiny.
Fortunately, in addition to her guards, Kelsea has a Robin-Hoodesque character who shows up whenever the plots requires it, to provide exposition or help the girl out, so that’s good.
Johansen’s action sequences are good. I enjoyed her dialogue and for the most part I enjoyed watching nineteen-year-old Kelsea struggling to fit in with the guards. Kelsea is an honest, good-hearted character who is smart and has lots of book-learning. As I was reading, her basic goodness, and the growing warmth between her and Lazarus, her main guard, allowed me to disregard the fact that the villains are poorly defined and that Kelsea is a terrible political ruler. After I finished it, though, I struggled with doubts.
Johansen’s world building, while interesting, gave me a few problems too, although nowhere near as many. The Tear and the neighboring nations were founded by British, European and American colonists after an event called The Crossing. The folklore about The Crossing in Kelsea’s world talks about ships and implies an ocean voyage but it is obvious from the clues that the actual crossing was something very different. We don’t exactly know yet what it was, but I am confident we will find out in subsequent books. While Johansen is specific that certain things from our world made The Crossing (J.K. Rowling books, heroin, and Christianity) many other things, mostly technological, didn’t. This leads into a couple of plot-traps – informed that the Red Queen is building cannon, one of the Queen’s Guards scoffs, saying “There is no gunpowder.” Black powder is easily made from natural ingredients and it’s likely that in three hundred years, someone would have reinvented it. Clearly, if any country were going to reconstitute gunpowder it would be Mortmain, the land of the Red Queen. And… really? You’ve synthesized heroin but haven’t worked on gunpowder?
I also had a jarring experience with the book very early on, when Barty and Carlin, Kelsea’s foster parents, tell her they will be leaving the forest and going to the “southern village of Petaluma.” That shattered my suspension of disbelief. Petaluma is fifteen miles from my home town; Johansen wrote parts of the book at the Peet’s Coffee there, and I bought my copy in a Petaluma bookstore because she was labeled as a local author. While the homage is charming, it broke the spell. Imagine you live in Douglas County, Kansas and while you’re reading a high fantasy novel, a character mentions moving to Lawrence. It’s a wrench. I like shout-outs, and this would have been fun if I’d come across it deeper into the book, not in the first few pages.
Again, it sounds as if I didn’t like the book, but I did. There’s a pleasant energy to Johansen’s prose and a certain exuberance to it that carried me along. Kelsea is a likeable character, and the growing power of the magical jewel is interesting. The Queen of the Tearling is the first book of a trilogy, and while Johansen has set up some pretty serious questions for herself, I’m willing to hang in for at least one more book (The Invasion of the Tearling, due out in June, 2015) to see if she can answer them.
I’d been looking forward to reading Erika Johansen’s debut novel, The Queen of the Tearling, for quite a while, but didn’t get a chance to sit down and crack open the pages until recently. The free preview I read a few years ago was intriguing, Ray and Marion’s reviews whetted my interest to a fine point, and I’m pleased to report that I enjoyed the novel more than I’d expected to. There are some debut-author missteps, and Johansen goes a little overboard with regards to the evil-ness of the Queen of the Mortmesne and her underlings, but the Queen of the Tearling herself is likeable and the overall story is extremely compelling.
Kelsea Raleigh Glynn has been raised in isolation by foster parents, who have been preparing her as best they can for her eventual coronation and rule over the people of the Tearling, a semi-medieval Europe-style country in which magic is possible and science is known, but not always accessible. (Kelsea is aware of recessive genes and the debilitating effects of heroin, but it seems that printing presses are a thing of the distant past, and gunpowder is too complex for the Tearling army to manufacture.) Because Johansen makes it plain early on that Kelsea’s knowledge comes from carefully hoarded books which describe facts of life from “pre-Crossing Britain and America,” sometime in a near future, it was usually easy for me to accept this blending of fantasy and science, though I would have liked a little more explanation as to why something like gunpowder is beyond their reach. Still, I’m very intrigued to learn more about the events of the Crossing, why William Tear and his followers underwent the journey, and why technology slid backward from a supposedly advanced state to a decidedly agrarian lifestyle.
Kelsea herself is the best part of The Queen of the Tearling; she’s shockingly naïve in some areas, but well-educated in others, and her struggles to be a fair and just leader are well-portrayed. Her immaturity is tempered with self-awareness, and she’s got a whip-smart sense of humor, which helped to round out her character and prevented her Chosen One narrative from becoming boring or too predictable. Johansen teases a lot of plot points without revealing much in this first volume of the QUEEN OF THE TEARLING trilogy, leaving readers to guess at the identity of Kelsea’s father, the circumstances of the aforementioned Crossing, and the identity of the Queen of Mortmesne herself: a fearsome woman who consorts with shadowy figures, engages in a brutal slave trade, and, to initial appearances, might be immortal. I very much want to know more about her background and her motivations.
There are secondary characters like “the Fetch” and “the Mace” who, as Marion pointed out, do a great job of showing up whenever the plot needs them to, whether in a mysterious-shadowy-figure capacity or if Kelsea needs to have a moment in which she doubts whether any of her allies can be trusted. The power structure of the Tearling is pretty obvious: while a woman might rule the country, men lead her armies and fill its ranks, other men lead the Church, and women fill the roles of servants, whores, and courtiers. I sense that Johansen is building toward a big shake-up and enforced equality across social lines, which I support, but I prefer a little more subtlety. On the other hand, this is a YA novel, so the intended audience may have a different interpretation and perspective.
On the whole, The Queen of the Tearling was a lot of fun to read, and I’m eager to read the next installment, The Invasion of the Tearling as soon as possible. Kelsea is an appealing hero/savior figure, Johansen’s prose is entertaining, and there’s obviously a lot to be revealed about this world.
Queen of the Tearling — (2014-2016) Publisher: After the death of her mother, Queen Elyssa, young Kelsea Raleigh was raised in hiding, in the care of two devoted servants who pledged their lives to protect her. Long ago, Kelsea’s forefathers sailed away from a decaying world to establish a new land free of modern technology. Three hundred years later, this feudal society has divided into three fearful nations who pay duties to a fourth: the powerful Mortmesne, ruled by the cunning Red Queen. Now, on Kelsea’s nineteenth birthday, the tattered remnants of the Queen’s Guard have appeared to escort the princess to the capital to ascend to her rightful place as the new Queen of the Tearling. Though born of royal blood and in possession of the Tear sapphire, a jewel of immense power and magic, Kelsea has never felt more uncertain of her ability to rule. But the shocking evil she discovers in the heart of her realm will precipitate an act of immense daring, throwing the entire kingdom into turmoil—and unleashing the Red Queen’s vengeance. Riddled with mysteries, betrayals, and treacherous battles, Kelsea’s journey is a trial by fire that will either forge a legend . . . or destroy her.
There are many books that I have enjoyed despite the fact that I am very much aware of their faults, and sometimes I’m in the mood for exactly that kind of book. I like how you titled this review.
We’re neighbors to some degree as I live in Petaluma. I’d love to know the name of the bookstore in which you work. It would be fun to browse with you recommendations a step away!
I enjoy your reviews and find myself in close agreement most of the time.
Happy New Year,
Kasey, I work at Mockingbird Books in Sebastopol. It is a second-hand bookstore. We’d love to have you visit!
I am going to Petaluma more and more as I discover just what an interesting town it is.
Jana, in INVASION OF THE TEARLING Johansen addresses a lot of your questions and we even get to see a bit of “the crossing.”
That’s good to know–thanks! :D