The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen has been getting major press. Author Johansen received a tremendous cash advance for the series, numerous reviewers have acclaimed it (and some have criticized it) and Emma Watson is set to star in and executive produce the film version…who can turn down a book that gets Hermione Granger’s seal of approval?
Nine Queen’s Guard swoop down on an out-of-the-way cottage in the woods to escort away protagonist Kelsea Raleigh from her childhood home to the royal palace. Sent away by her mother Queen Elyssa, Kelsea’s nineteenth birthday marks her ascendance to the throne – assuming she can make it to the coronation without being killed. Just on her way to the capital, she’s chased by assassins hired by her power-hungry uncle, who reigns as regent and means to keep it that way, and captured by wanted thief the Fetch and his band of merry men. Even once she makes it to New London, she must constantly be on her guard, both from the court and the mysterious Red Queen, ruler of neighboring Mortmesne, as she attempts to save her crumbling kingdom (or should I say queendom?) and win the respect of her people.
Johansen herself and others have heralded Kelsea as a non-stereotypical YA heroine, which is true – to an extant. Certainly Johansen makes much of the fact that Kelsea isn’t attractive and is slightly plump. However, she strongly wishes to be, resenting the more beautiful ladies of her court even after finding out how vain her own mother was. She does have numerous positive qualities though – she’s well-educated, she’s determined, she knows her own mind. I also liked that while she was rash at times, she did realize that her actions had consequences. For someone with very little knowledge of current affairs in her country, she did as best as she could while hewing closely to her personal moral code.
Additionally, she is feminist enough to not let men either sway her opinion or distract her too much from her responsibilities. Her guard, her uncle, and the various other men in her life all underestimate her but she’s very firm that she is queen and she is in command. Lazarus the Mace in particular bumbles a few times, and she’s strict enough to berate him for not trusting her while savvy enough to know that she needs his assistance. She is attracted to the Fetch, but the romance in this book is very minimal, unlike most young adult tales these days that are all about the many swoon-worthy men vying for a girl’s affections; however, I imagine that will change in the future if she needs to continue her family line and there are several built-in candidates for her potential affections.
In relation to the plot, most other trilogies tend to produce strong first and third books, with the middle being filler. In comparison, this book seems to largely be set-up for the action of the subsequent books in that it was slowly paced. It covers a snippet in time, in which many things happen but many questions go unanswered. I’m curious to know more about Kelsea’s family, the Fetch, the Mace’s backstory, the jewels, the Red Queen and her magic, and the mysterious Crossing that destroyed all technological advances. The story is told from Kelsea’s point of view, so I guess her ignorance is ours. But the fact that I don’t know much about anything except Kelsea herself is a source of frustration since the external details were often the most fascinating.
For example, one unique element of the novel was that although it takes place in a dystopia, it also takes place in the future. Johansen doesn’t give enough information to discern what happened to the old world or where it is exactly that the Tearling’s ancestors fled to from the US and the UK (is it a different planet or just a new continent on Earth?) but I’ve certainly never read anything with this premise.
As a result, characters speak of innovations from printing presses to medicine as if they’re dinosaurs – they existed once but have faded to legend. A few books remain from the “olden” days, which Kelsea and others hoard like a dragon’s treasure – ironic because these books include The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter (maybe that’s why Emma Watson loved it?). Unfortunately, while amusing, blatantly bringing up these fantasy novels serves to highlight how unoriginal parts of the plot are as they’re drawn from other fantasies: the evil queen (named just like Alice in Wonderland), the mischievous thief (Robin Hood), the magical jewel (The Girl of Fire and Thorns) and the despotic uncle (Prince Caspian‘s Miraz from The Chronicles of Narnia) among other examples.
That is not to say that this story was ill-told. Indeed, I devoured it in one sitting as it was an easy enough read that kept my attention. It wasn’t perfect and, by the conclusion, Kelsea still has a lot to learn about being both a just and capable queen, especially with the Tearling being on the brink of war. Nevertheless, as a result of her growth potential and the snippets of future that Johansen intersperses throughout the book, I believe that the sequels will only get stronger and recommend this book as a springboard into a fascinating new saga.
One note of warning: I didn’t realize this at the outset, but it contains enough mature discussions of sensitive topics and sexually explicit scenarios that I would be wary of exposing it to younger audiences. Meaning, if it’s marketed to “young adults”, they should be fairly mature “young” adults.