It was only last week that I had ‘The Queen of the Tearling’ on the list of books I needed to read in spring, so I’m as surprised as you are that I already managed to finish it. Normally high fantasy takes me so long, and seeing that this book was nearing the 500 page mark… Well, I’d been expecting to be struggling through it for the better part of a fortnight.
However, here we are: I’ve finished it, and I’m feeling… Confused.
I’m confused because I don’t feel anything towards ‘The Queen of the Tearling’. I enjoyed Erika Johansen’s writing – I must have, because I flew through the book! But nothing much really happened (apart from endless travelling montages and a brief conflict that could have been dealt with much faster) and I have a lot of problems with what was included in the book. Still, it doesn’t infuriate me as much as books have in the past… I’m completely on the fence. I’m actually neutral about a book for once.
I can’t understand why it’s has been so highly praised. ‘The Queen of the Tearling’ is set in the future, in a time after the Crossing. Nope, me neither. There is literally no world-building: we get told that the Tear is to the west of Mortmesne, the capital of the Tear is New London, the capital of Mortmesne is Demesne, there are a couple of other countries under Mortmesne’s thumb, and there are two queens (the Red Queen of Mortmesne and the title character, surprise surprise!) who are not the best of friends. I’m hoping we’ll get information about the Crossing and the time that followed it in the second novel, but for a book establishing a brand new series this is not well done at all.
I also hated the main character, Kelsea Glynn. She’s dreadful. I’m not exaggerating: all she does is complain about the fact that her looks are so plain, pine over a guy called the Fetch who is much older than her (and, by the way, who she only met once before fantasizing about him at every possible opportunity) and be absolutely horrible about her subjects. The best example of this is Kelsea’s inner monologue regarding the looks of Lady Andrews, one of the older inhabitants of the Tear:
‘What does she see when she looks in the mirror? Kelsea wondered. How could a woman who looked so old still place so much importance on being attractive? She had read about this particular delusion in books many times, but it was different to see it in practice. And for all the all the anguish that Kelsea’s own reflection had caused her lately, she saw now that there was something far worse than being ugly; being ugly and thinking you were beautiful.’
Lady Andrews is a little bit annoying, sure, but she doesn’t deserve that kind of assassination! Kelsea doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong about mocking and berating an older woman in front of her peers, either. She just doesn’t react to anything: she kills someone and just instantly thinks ‘she wished she could tell Barty‘ when it’s her first kill… It’s not genuine! There’s no authentic emotion in this book at all. This girl has been exiled with two people for her entire life, and she doesn’t have any difficulty getting to terms with crowds or holding conversations with multiple people – if you’d constantly been interacting with just two other human beings, you would have some issues.
The only thing that even vaguely redeems Kelsea’s character is her obsession with reading and books. Apparently reading hasn’t been a widespread habit since before the Crossing, but Kelsea is determined to reestablish a printing press and get books distributed among all of the populace of the Tear. It’s quite commendable, even if it shouldn’t be a priority – at this point she still thinks there’s an army on its way to invade the Tear, so she really should put books on the back burner and deal with the situation at hand.
However, when not taking Kelsea into account, I actually enjoyed the subplots focusing on the minor characters. There’s a Gate Guard called Javel whose wife was taken from him years earlier, and all he wants is to get her back. There’s Father Tyler, who crowns Kelsea and has to learn to live in the spotlight as the Keep’s priest. And there are very occasional sections told from the point of view of the Queen of Mortmesne: getting a glimpse into the other side is fascinating, and I much preferred reading the bits focused upon her (even though the ones towards the end of the book glamourise rape and paedophilia… You win some, you lose some). To start with, I was annoyed that we kept jumping into other people’s stories, but they’re so much more interesting I found myself yearning for more.
I also love most of the characters that make up the Queen’s guard: most notably Pen and Mace. We only really interact with them through Kelsea, but they’re great characters and I wanted to read more of them. I do wonder if I would have absolutely loved ‘The Queen of the Tearling’ if there just hadn’t been a queen.
I definitely don’t think it should have been marketed as adult fantasy. It’s young adult, no question. There are some references to rape, some profanity and a fair bit of violence, but none of it is extreme or offensive: this is not of ‘Game of Thrones’ standard (talking of which, I can’t genuinely believe there are non-ironic comparisons being made between the two). There’s a fight sequence at the end of the book which lends itself to named character deaths (the entirety of the Queen’s Guard, who we’ve grown to know and love, are in the fray) and Erika Johansen chose to kill off the one member of the Guard who Kelsea hadn’t interacted with… It was a cheap choice, and this book definitely doesn’t have the guts to fit it with most fantasy novels.
I’m going to read ‘The Invasion of the Tearling’, the second book in the series, because I want to know the history of the Crossing and how the Tear was established. If that information is not divulged in the second novel, I’m going to bash my head against a wall.