Book Review: Queen Of The Tearling by Erika Johansen

Star Ratings:

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: ** (2 1/2  stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Overall: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 and up (Medieval violence including sexual violence.)

Let it thus be known: I read an advanced copy of this book, and some details may have changed before the official release on July 8, 2014.

It’s been an weirdly long time since I read a novel set in your typical fantasy world, with queens; outlaws; and miserable serfs. I can’t remember the last time I sat in the Fantasy section at the library with a heavy paperback – cheesy illustrated cover and all –open on my lap. While The Queen Of The Tearling brought me right back to the familiar world of contested borders and names I can’t pronounce, I’m struggling to find a category for it in my head. The world and logic weren’t described clearly enough for me to associate it with those extensive, detailed series. And while the writing; characters; and plot were more right for the YA market, certain “mature” details would prevent me from recommending it to anyone under 14. (I don’t always like the term “mature” when it comes to saying that there’s NSFW content, because I know plenty of younger readers who have better critical reading skills than most adults. The point here is: there’s a bit of grossness that’s definitely not for children.) Basically, The Queen Of The Tearling was a fairly quick read with a decent plot, but it doesn’t promise anything new or exciting for habitual browsers of the fantasy shelves.

We first meet Kelsea near woodland cottage where she was raised in hiding by adoptive parents. The Queens Guard, a troop of her mother’s dedicated knights, have come to bring her back to the castle. Kelsea just turned nineteen, and so it’s time for her to become queen. Even though Barty and Carlin taught Kelsea as much as they could about nature, humanity, and The Tearling, she still feels completely unprepared to fill her mother’s powerful shoes. Actually, they were probably just fancy shoes; Kelesa’s started to notice that her mother wasn’t a very good queen at all, and has resolved not to be so vain and out of touch with her own people.

Their journey to the keep is a long one, endangered by her guards’ certainty that the current regent – Kelsea’s uncle – will try to kill her en route rather than give up his power. Throw in some dashing outlaws; scary assassins; and bloodthirsty hawks, and it’s a miracle she makes it to the throne at all. Growing up isolated from the kingdom, Kelsea had no idea how badly the general population was doing. Her subjects are treated as bargaining chips by the corrupt court in an attempt to keep the the domineering neighbor kingdom’s evil “Red Queen” at bay. The Tearling needs a True Queen and it needs one fast. But in order to help her people, Kelsea will have to remain true to herself while everyone nearby tries to sway her to suit their own needs.

I assume that The Queen Of The Tearling is the beginning of a series – or maybe a trilogy – because the history and nature of Erika Johansen’s world only came through in partial references throughout this first installment. From what I gathered, The Queen Of The Tearling takes place in the future, with mankind there being descended from people who left our known Earth in “The Crossing.” When was the crossing, exactly? What did William Tear and the other emigrants even cross? An ocean? A magical portal? Space? I’m still not quite sure. What I do understand is that William Tear brought along some utopian Americans and British, and attempted to establish a new colony where things would be simpler. Based on the presence of other races and countries in the new world – Mortmesne seems to have a lot of French influence I think – there must have been some other groups who made the journey for various reasons.

By the time Kelsea comes into power, the high ideals brought over by settlers have regressed into a medieval type of society. Few people can read, all the medical science went down in one sinking ship, and the Red Queen of Mortmesne has spent over a century terrorizing neighboring countries into submission. How has she lived for so long? The answer to that is just as mysterious as the reasons for her cruelty. Despite the several chapters illustrating just how wicked the Red Queen is, there’s no point in this book which clarified her motives.

And then there’s the question of these magical jewels Kelsea inherits, which have unexpected control over some situations. Kelsea is only just discovering their uses as she learns to be queen – figuring out everything as she goes along – but by the end of the book I was less curious about their magical properties and more frustrated with them. Fantasy worlds should still have rules, but it seems we’ll have to wait for another book to learn how they work. Twinned relics containing some sort of destiny aren’t too surprising in fantasy literature. It will be hard to justify their use without some really unique twist about their powers in some future installment.

The writing was just so-so: it could get dully obvious at times, but wasn’t noticeably bad. The characters, on the other hand, were sympathetic in some cases and completely flat in others. Kelsea’s struggle to make the right decisions and her attempts to inspire loyalty without fear were certainly noble, though her disdain for vanity almost came off as snobbish at times. I did like her enthusiasm for literacy, and the fact that she didn’t get entangled into any sordid romance during the book. Nearly everyone at court was so shallow they barely stuck in my mind, though Kelsea’s lady-in-waiting might show some secret bad-ass-ery later on. “The Fetch”, our dashing outlaw, is a similar case: he has the potential to become a really fun folk-hero or a force to be reckoned with, but in this book he just appeared and disappeared without much rhyme or reason. Most minor characters either faded into part of the scenery or stood out as a stereotype. A few exceptions would include the priest who is supposed to spy on Kelsea (his love for learning made his moral dilemma easier to forgive), the gate guard who damns himself by assisting a traitor (he wants to do the right thing but is desperate to save his wife), and the Mace – Kelsea’s main guard.

The Mace was easily my favorite character. Even though he keeps much of his past a big secret I thought he had more depth than anyone else. The Queen’s Guard definitely gets the most page-time besides Kelsea herself. In fact, I might have preferred to read a book all about their own part in the growing political unrest. Not all of the guard members were fully developed characters, but their actions were genuine and I actually cared about what might happen to them. The only time I felt truly distraught at any character’s misfortune was in relation to the Queen’s Guard. They were also the most grown-up element of the book.

The Queen Of The Tearling was an entertaining diversion into familiar fantasy grounds. I liked some of the characters and appreciated the lack of any one-true-love nonsense. Erika Johansen’s ideas about how society will fall back into past patterns when starting anew made a good basis for a fantasy setting, and I wish that she had developed the background of that world better before finishing her debut. While I won’t be recommending this book to readers looking for something similar to those heavy series out there right now, I can see it acting as a gateway to more intricate fantasy novels for slightly tentative fans.

Will I be racing to read the sequel when it comes out? Probably not. Next time I want to read about courtly intrigue, I’ll finally get to reading Dark Triumph, the sequel to Robin LaFever’s Grave Mercy. That series about assassin nuns in medieval Brittany has excellent writing and a really smart grasp of history. That being said, The Queen Of The Tearling is a fast read with the potential to grow into a darkly enjoyable series.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Queen Of The Tearling by Erika Johansen

  1. I absolutely agree with you on the whole Crossing bit. I mean, there is teasing out the details and then there is just plain leaving out vital information. And it’s such a hard to classify book like you say, so it just doesn’t quite fit into anything.

    Also, I love the Mace!

    I really wanted to like this book more than I did, I mean, I enjoyed it and all, but it wasn’t an instant classic or anything. It was a fast summer read and that’s fine. The idea with the Crossing is kinda cool and I wish there was more of that….Honestly, come to think of it, it’s kinda close to the Grisha Trilogy in terms of plot and story ideas (in some ways, others not so much) and I like the Grisha Trilogy more. Cause if you’re gonna set something in serf times, what better place to do that than in a mythical version of Russia? I mean, they always threw the best royal parties.

    • So I clearly need to read the Grisha Trilogy ASAP. I love the concept and trust your judgement. Maybe I’ll wait until winter for it, but something tells me that the first volume will find its way into my next library stack. Then I can finally get excited about it with you!

      I don’t so much mind that the book is hard to classify in terms of which shelf I would put it on, because I like the idea of people stepping out of their usual reading comfort zones a little. I just wish I could figure out where it belongs in my mental categories…

      Yay for Team Lazarus! He was definitely the highlight of the book for me. I want him on my side in any fight.

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  3. Think you make a great point about the magical jewels, and the fact that fantasy worlds should have rules – this is something Rowling has also said, and probably contributes to the massive success of Harry Potter; there are a bunch of rules and limitations that structure her world. I felt like the magical jewels were Johansen’s get-out card for every threat Kelsea and co. encountered, to the point where there was no suspense or sense of danger anymore: it’s just a given that Kelsea’s magical necklace will save the day.

    I’m also not sure what this book is marketed as (YA or fantasy) – not that this should ordinarily make a difference, but if it’s going to be pitted against all the other YA big guns out there at the moment, I think it fares pretty highly. I recently read the Maze Runner and nearly died of boredom and misery from hanging out with such dry characters, and I actually found The Queen of the Tearling compelling reading. You haven’t said anything about Pen in your review – I thought he was a great character, and I like the possible doors he opens in terms of an alternative love interest to the Fetch (who I’m half endeared with, half annoyed by).

    Also loved the Mace. Tortured souls are always the best

    • I guess I found Pen rather forgettable, though I still appreciate how Johansen was able to create a little romantic intrigue WITHOUT indulging in an overdone will-they-won’t-they situation. Who can blame Kelsea for dwelling on The Fetch a little bit? He’s puzzling and exciting. Again, though, huzzah for her fascination being more of a side-crush than a complete obsession. You’re right about the difficult balance between endearing and annoying, especially in mysterious outlaws, who ought to be the best characters in any story. But his contribution to the plot does have some real potential!

      QotT is hard to qualify because I’m just not sure to whom I would recommend it. Teen readers with really strong stomachs? Because there are so many *very* adult situations, but most characters have one-dimensional or shallow motives which make them seem younger than they are. New fantasy fans who don’t mind suspending disbelief a little? Compared to the world-building and careful plotting of magic in so many other fantasy series right now, this one falls short… It is compelling, though, as you said. So a good choice if anyone needs to just fall into a story for a while.

      Team The Mace! Woohoo!

  4. Pingback: Queen of the Tearling | Book Discussion Guides

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