Fiction: “The Queen of the Tearling” by Erika Johansen

queen of tearlingThis is an instance where the library actually came through. They have a table that displays new and notable titles, and The Invasion of the Tearling was on that table back in late April, early May. I picked up the book and learned almost instantly that the book in my hand was the second in a trilogy. I marched over to the Fiction shelves, already cursing the library’s inability to purchase the first book in a series, when, lo and behold, the first title, The Queen of the Tearling, was sitting on the shelf.

Reader, I grabbed it.

Note From the Future: Now, before you grab it, I should warn y’all: while I don’t think this review would be subject to any trigger warnings, this book would be. There are scenes involving sexual assault and sexual intercourse without consent, and scenes where rape is discussed. Violence is rampant as well. Even though I liked it, the book could trigger people, so I want y’all to know that up front.

The titular Queen of the Tearling is Kelsea Raleigh. The Tear is a ravaged country, operating centuries after something called The Crossing, where people crossed an ocean to found a better world. (Spoiler alert!: through clues in the text, we are to learn that the world Crossed from is our own! This is a book about the future!)

Since The Crossing, the rulers of the Tear have lived very short lives. I’m not sure what causes the short life expectancy (other than murder – none of the other rulers have died of old age); the Tear is supposed to be a utopia. But Queens don’t live very long. Kelsea’s mother, Queen Elyssa, sent Kelsea away to live with Barty and Carlin Glynn when Kelsea was very tiny, in the hopes of shielding Kelsea until she was of age to take the throne. Meanwhile, Elyssa’s brother, Thomas, was Prince Regent of the Tear, and he was pretty much an asshole. Can’t remember how Elyssa died, but it wasn’t pretty, I’m sure.

The story starts on Kelsea’s nineteenth birthday, when the Queen’s Guard arrives to bring Kelsea back to New London to ascend the throne. Kelsea is a plain girl, and headstrong, but she frets about being a good leader.

I can’t remember the full series of events that gets Kelsea to New London, but on her camping trip (essentially), she runs into a mysterious Robin Hood-type figure known as The Fetch. The Fetch was familiar with Kelsea’s mother, and says something that a) gives Kelsea faith in her confidence and learning, and also b) gives Kelsea a bit of a crush on The Fetch.

Kelsea had a bit of idolatry when it came to her mother, growing up. She wanted to be a good Queen, like Elyssa. But Kelsea quickly learns that Elyssa was not a great Queen.

During Elyssa’s reign, the neighboring country of Mortmesne, led by the Red Queen, attacks the Tear. And Elyssa’s only chance of survival for the Tear is to agree to a monthly shipment: a number of the Tear population to be sent to Mortmesne, where they will be used as slave labor and, in many cases, worse than slave labor. In Elyssa’s absence, Regent Thomas continued the Shipment, because it means there’s no war and he’s able to remain secluded in The Keep, surrounded by concubines.

When Kelsea arrives at New London, (I believe) she arrives on the same day as The Shipment is scheduled to leave. She stops the Shipment, against the advice of her Guard and other advisors – even when they tell her that a late shipment is cause for invasion from the Mort. She doesn’t care, because she can’t believe her mother would have done something like trade her people for safety.

The story alternates between Kelsea, the Red Queen wondering where Kelsea is, and a couple of other characters. There’s a subplot about the religious aspect of the Tear, a hyped-up form of ultra-conservative Catholicism known as The Arvath, and there are Fathers and a Pope-like figure, and Kelsea doesn’t truck with religion but she kinda has to as, y’know, Queen, so … Father Tyler and the Arvath play a slightly larger part in the second book (which I just finished reading, after Christmas, so … keep an eye out for that review in seven months?).

I had to read the Goodreads reviews (again, my notes are … not great. If I’m going to commit to being bad at this, I have to at least commit to taking better notes and not just jotting down character names and quotes) and … I forgot a lot about this book before reading the second one. I also apparently didn’t get the same feeling from a lot of the reviews, which haaaaated this book. I don’t know, I thought it was okay? People got really pissed that it was touted as a Hunger Games-meets-Game of Thrones and no, it’s not, but I still thought it was interesting.

Other reviews state that since the book is told through third person omniscience that we only see Kelsea reacting to things and not actually experiencing them, but other reviews complain that we see Kelsea thinking about things she’s about to react to first, and, to that I say, make up your mind? Either a character reacts with no thought process so we, the reader, have no idea what led the character to that reaction, or we see each thought racing through a character’s mind leading up to that reaction, which makes the reaction almost an afterthought or some other type of nonentity. You can’t have it both ways, readers! Pick one complaint and stick with it!

Oh shit, I never mentioned the sapphires! So Kelsea begins the story with one sapphire, the Tear Sapphire. I think it may have been one of those things that signify the person’s truly of regal birth? I don’t know. But Kelsea wears one and when she has it on it tries to protect her from shit. Like, it’ll burn when she gets pissed or something. She gets another one from somewhere – maybe the Fetch? – and when she puts the two on together (the jewels are on necklaces) she has super powerful magic. Like, “lay waste to an entire army outpost” powerful. (Oh shit, spoiler alert.)

The Red Queen is an awful person. She uses slaves for everything, including sex. She also talks with a demon or something in a fireplace, and in order to gain power she bleeds children dry. She’s kind of a monster. But she’s obsessed with Kelsea and getting the sapphires, so – next book?

Now, for all of the complaining people did on the interwebs about how stupid Kelsea is, I thought this was pretty smart, to be honest. She’s in the Keep, and getting ready for her bath with her lady’s maid, Andalie, nearby:

Andalie stood in her accustomed spot at the door of Kelsea’s chamber, holding out a clean towel. Kelsea had made it clear that she didn’t require help with her bath (her mind boggled at the sort of woman who would), but still, Andalie always seemed to know when to have things ready. [p. 255-256]

Halfway through her bath, Kelsea is attacked by an assassin. (This act brought a whole bunch of grousing from the Interwebs, wondering where the Queen’s Guard was at that point? They’d secured the area, dude!) And this happens:

“Lady?” It was Andalie. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Kelsea replied easily, steeling herself to feel the knife go in. “I’ll ring when it’s time to wash my hair.” [p. 259]

See? That’s … you gotta admit, that’s pretty smart. Kelsea knows that Andalie knows that Kelsea doesn’t need to have any help with her bath, but the assassin doesn’t know that. So that was a signal! I’m sorry I’m Alaina-splaining this, but I thought that was pretty smart for a nineteen-year-old.

And I thought Andalie was a very wise character. She also has a bit of the Sight, but it’s not overused. I really liked this conversation, where Andalie asks Kelsea about her crush on The Fetch:

Andalie shook her head, chuckling mirthlessly, then leaned down and murmured in Kelsea’s ear. “Who’s the man, Majesty? I’ve seen his face in your mind many times. The dark-haired man with the snake-charmer’s smile.”

Kelsea blushed. “No one.”

“Not no one.” Andalie grabbed a hang of hair over Kelsea’s left ear and sheared straight through it. “He means very much to you, this man, and I see shame covering all of those feelings.”

“So?”

“Did you choose to feel this way for this man?”

“No,” Kelsea admitted.

“One of the worst choices you could have made, no?”

Kelsea nodded, defeated.

“We don’t always choose, Majesty. We simply make the best choices we can once the deed is done.” [p. 352]

It’s like Andalie can look right into my teenaged soul from fifteen years ago! *quickly does math* oh god, twenty years ago. oh my god.

ANYWAY. At the end of the day (or May, when I finished reading this), I did like the book. I liked it enough to read the second book in the series within the same year. I liked it enough to recommend it to a friend for a Christmas present. It’s not quite a YA novel; there are some themes throughout the novel that are pretty violent and icky, and honestly, I’m going to go up to the top of this review and add a trigger warning for the novel, because that should go at the top and not the bottom. It is not as intimate as the Hunger Games trilogy, and while I’ve only read 200 pages of A Game of Thrones, I don’t think it comes close to that epic, either. But I liked it, and I hadn’t read YA in a while.

So, your mileage may vary, but I thought it was good.

Grade for The Queen of the Tearling: 3.5 stars

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