*This review contains spoilers for a major plot point.
The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen
US Publisher & Release Date: Harper, 2014
Trigger warnings: References to rape/sexual slavery, pedophilia/child sexual abuse (though no outright depictions of child rape), homophobia, torture
My Rating: 5/5 stars
The Queen of the Tearling is ambitious, dark, gritty, and original. It’s simultaneously future and past; we learn that the Tearling is not an average high fantasy setting, someplace loosely based on the medieval British Isles, for example. It is medieval-esque, but it takes place in our future. In the 2050s, the Tearling’s founders leave America, Britain, the world we know it, behind and take the Crossing into the Tear. Technology and higher medicine are lost, but the Tear have heard of computers, antibiotics, and some (personal) libraries even have copies of The Hobbit and Harry Potter. Religion still exists, of course, but it’s changed in a lot of ways (though not necessarily for the better), and there are a few main characters who identify as atheists and agnostics.
“Carlin was a great admirer of New Europe. Even in the early wake of the Crossing, when borders were barely drawn and the southern New World was a battlefield for warlords, New Europe had been a thriving representative democracy with near universal participation in elections. But the Red Queen had changed many things; now New Europe was Mortmesnb, and democracy had vanished.”
I started the book and was immediately drawn into the story, even though I had no idea about the history of the Tearling at first. It’s a slow revelation. Even on the surface, when you’re thinking it’s a traditional fantasy, it’s enjoyable and stands out from similar tales. For one thing, the world is very rich. There are passages and quotes at the beginning of each chapter that illuminate the history, give you a sense that this world is real – it has its own literature, military histories, religious texts, and children’s songs. This world was well and truly built.
Kelsea, the main character, is a princess who’s been raised in hiding. Her mother, the former Queen of the Tearling and brother to the current Regent, sent her away with her Guard when Kelsea was born to live in hiding until the age of majority. The queen tasked two former members of her court and guard to raise Kelsea, but swore them to secrecy about herself, so Kelsea has only the vaguest of ideas about who her mother was and what type of ruler she had been. All she knows is that her uncle, the Regent, has joined forces with the Queen of Mortesne, a neighboring country, to kill her before she can assume the crown. When she comes of age, the Queen’s Guard comes to collect their new queen and bring her to her Keep. It’s a dangerous task they are reluctant to carry out, and they obviously have little faith in Kelsea until she shows her mettle and wins them over with her bravery and spine of steel.
“The land she would rule frightened her in its vastness, but at the sight of the men and women working in the fields, something inside her seemed to turn over and breathe deeply for the first time. All of these people were her responsibility.”
Kelsea is so different from other fantasy heroines I’ve read in that she is so calmly self-aware. She’s chubby, plain, and brave. She analyzes her mistakes, tries to view her actions clearly. I found her issues with body image very moving; there are so many times she finds herself thinking some ridiculous thing about her weight or her plainness, and then scolds herself for even caring about that in the face of, for example, her people being sold into slavery or her barely escaping an assassination attempt. She seemed so real, like I could really believe that she’d been raised in a stern home with the singular focus of preparing her for rule. There are scenes where she discusses the power the beautiful have with a cool detachment, and she doesn’t moon over anyone – even when she is attracted to someone, she compartmentalizes it to focus on the task at hand. She’s got serious responsibilities, and she has too much on her mind to worry if someone finds her beautiful, but she’s also still believably a teenaged girl. I really liked that.
“She remembered her childhood dream of entering the city on a white pony with a crown on her head. Today she looked nothing like a queen….Kelsea cursed herself. Who cares about your hair, you fool? Look what’s been done here!”
Kelsea lives in a world of male-perpetrated violence (though much of that is at the behest of the Mort Queen, who sanctions many vile things, such as rape and sexual slavery). She approaches her rule as a woman, outlawing slavery, freeing women from abusive husbands, insisting children be educated, and refusing to consider any matrimonial matches that would erode her independence and influence. She’s a reformer and a self-avowed socialist, determined to level the playing field for her people. She’s also, get this, an atheist. Be still my heart!
Her Guard also provides some great characters, particularly the Mace and Pen Alcott. Kelsea’s relationship with Mace is like with a father, but with more banter. Mace keeps Kelsea real, and he doesn’t think she’s perfect. The Mort Queen is a fascinating villain, and the tension between the Tearling and the Mort is intense. There are larger and darker foes facing Kelsea than the technicalities of ruling an impoverished, debauched kingdom, and the Mort Queen might turn out to be the least of them.
I recommend this for traditional fantasy fans, for readers who love a realistic and headstrong heroine who’s not placed on a pedestal, for fans of gritty Martin/Abercombie world-building, and for people who love traditional fantasy but want something more.
“She was Kelsea Glynn, a girl who’d grown up in the forest, who loved to study history an read fiction. But she was something else, something more than Kelsea, and so she remained there for a moment longer, watching over her country, straining to see the danger beyond the horizon. My responsibility, she thought, and the idea brought no fear now, only an extraordinary sense of gratitude. My kingdom.”