The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
Series: The Queen of the Tearling, #1
Published: 2014, Harper
Genre: Adult Fantasy
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"You're young and reckless, Lady, It's a desirable quality in a warrior, but not in a queen."
Kelsea Raleigh has the dubious honor of being the rightful heir to the Tearling throne, a position that no single person inhabits for long. With the arrival of her nineteenth birthday, Kelsea can finally claim her throne, but she’s also become the most hunted person in all of the Tearling. The men of her mother’s Queen’s Guard - now her Queen’s Guard - have sworn to protect Kelsea and escort her back to the capital city for her coronation, but the road there will be anything but easy.
Even after she’s arrived back in the capital, Kelsea has quite the task ahead of her, learning how to be queen while dealing with her power-hungry uncle, a mistrustful, hope-deprived people, many traitors within her reach, and the mysterious Red Queen of the neighboring country of Mortmesne.
The Queen of the Tearling has been making a lot of waves in the publishing industry lately, and far be it for me to decry the mainstream popularity of any fantasy novel ever. Still, it’s a well acknowledged truth that not everything that’s hyped truly deserves the hype. I thus started reading The Queen of the Tearling with the hope that a truly good fantasy has amassed some recognition, but also with the slight fear of how the bad press of a mediocre fantasy could have far-reaching effects.
For the most part, The Queen of the Tearling really is a good story, thankfully.
Kelsea is a wonderful (if somewhat stereotypical) fantasy heroine. She’s grown up in isolation, told that she has a great destiny to uphold as the Queen of the Tearling. Spending her childhood with her foster parents Barty (a retired Queen’s Guard) and Carlin (a noble who once helped care for the royal family), Kelsea has gained many skills and grown up without a sense of entitlement. She’s smart, a quick study, kind, fair, and not above humbling herself.
Many of the conflicts in this novel arise due to Kelsea’s idealism. Not as bad a flaw as those her uncle - or even her mother - possess, but a flaw nonetheless. For even under Barty and Carlin’s tutelage, Kelsea has a long way to go in order to become the type of monarch that the Tearling really needs. And, as becomes abundantly clear, even the best intentions can be led astray.
Outside of her idealism, however, there is little that Kelsea does wrong. Or little that Kelsea is unable to pick up quickly with regard to ruling her kingdom, despite having a limited knowledge of the current affairs or any training in leadership. Kelsea’s genuine goodness and conviction made me care enough to root for her to succeed. Again, she fits the mold of a fantasy heroine very well, but is not exactly the most believable of characters.
This is Kelsea’s story, but she does share the narration with a few other characters. Although all the narratives eventually come together and help readers form a better understanding of the story as a whole, those additional narrators felt a bit off. They didn’t add much that astute readers couldn’t have extrapolated throughout the course of reading the novel. The vast majority of the novel being told through Kelsea’s perspective also contributed to a sense that these additional narratives felt like afterthoughts.
The worldbuilding is where The Queen of the Tearling becomes particularly interesting. At times it’s a rather slow-moving book, and for good reason; the world that Johansen created is complex and even a bit convoluted. The story takes place in a time centuries from now, where people from the U.S. and Britain left their homes behind for a new land, which became colonized as the Tearling and its surrounding countries. Part of the reason Kelsea’s world is less advanced than our current one has to do with much of the medicine and medical knowledge not successfully making the Crossing to their new world. In terms of explanations, though, the novel is pretty sparse. Much is left unsaid.
Genre is not necessarily a rigid concept, nor can books qualify for only one category. In many ways, the cultural and societal regressions caused by the Crossing have caused Kelsea’s story - and her world - to be categorized quite easily as a fantasy. But with the knowledge that this is a society of the future, one that is aware of medical advances, that still has copies of Rowling’s and Tolkien’s works, can it truly be the society of a fantasy world? No easy answer can be found within these pages but, again, hopefully it is something that will become clearer as Johansen continues to flesh out this world in future installments.
I cannot say I’m surprised by the fact that The Queen of the Tearling is being marketed towards an adult audience. Although there’s not much here in terms of sexuality, the novel does contain a hefty share of sometimes-graphic violence. Johansen’s writing style is lovely and befitting of an older style of fantasy classics (think Tolkien). Although Kelsea herself begins the novel as a naive nineteen-year-old, she matures quickly, and the novel itself isn’t so much about her growth as it is about her searching for ways to restore her kingdom. This is all a long-winded way of me saying that I agree with this book being marketed towards adult readers, although I do believe many young adult readers can also find a lot to enjoy within its pages.
Qualms with worldbuilding and the perfection of Kelsea’s character aside, I really enjoyed reading The Queen of the Tearling. Johansen has created a compelling story, one I’m eager to continue. Definitely recommended for lovers of fantasy, as well as those who love well-constructed female heroines and a hefty dose of political intrigue.
Rating: 4 stars