The Short Version: Kelsea Raleigh has just turned nineteen and, as such, is set to claim the throne of the Tearling. But she’s been in hiding since she was born and only her own bravery and the faith of a few good men (and women) stand between the ascendant queen and the many who want her dead. But getting crowned is just the first struggle of many more to come.
The Review: Sometimes, you just want some high fantasy. Nothing too serious – it doesn’t always need to be George R. R. Martin or even J. R. R. Tolkien. Sometimes you can just get yer swords and castles and magic and go for it. I had this sensation during the blizzard-that-wasn’t-quite here in NYC; I wanted to go back to the days when I wanted nothing more than to read all of the R. A. Salvatore (side note: what is it with genre authors and the initials?) Drizzt novels as quickly as possible.
Lucky for me, then, that I had this lying around. I’d picked it up at BEA this past spring, as the buzz was great – it’s already been slated for a movie trilogy starring Emma Watson (a note on that later) and it was a beautiful ARC. But I was wary for some reason. Perhaps the promotional copy that called it part-Hunger Games and part Game of Thrones. I try not to buy into that sort of hype but something about this soured my interest off the bat. Of course, as it turns out, those analogies are not only ridiculous but they’re unnecessary: The Queen of the Tearling is its own beast, indebted to many though it may be.
Johansen’s setting is a strangely Earth-based, but definitely not Earth, set of kingdoms – we’ve got magic here, so there’s definitely some kind of twist going on, but there are also a lot of references to the Bible, to British and American ships, even a wink to Shakespeare and Rowling (their books in a library collection). This was my one sticking point: we’re apparently several hundred years into the future and either the Earth has been reshaped or (way more likely) these folks are on some distant planet – and I couldn’t help but wonder why not go whole-hog and create a brand new world to play in? I have to assume it’ll be important later in the trilogy but it sometimes stuck out in the book at an awkward/uncomfortable angle.
That said, the book is a whole lot of fun. Kelsea, our main character, is a terrific heroine: she steps up in a big way from pretty much the first page. I can see why Emma Watson was so interested in her – she’s a female role model in the mold of Hermione and Katniss, although she’s a different (and perhaps more complex) character in her own right. The one thing I will say is that the book goes out of its way to describe her as plain. Emma Watson isn’t plain – and so it makes me wonder how the gender politics will translate to the screen. Because while the book makes a big deal of the ‘actual’ politics at play (some really heavy issues of slavery, sexual violence, trade negotiations, separation of church and state, literacy and education all get some decent attention in this book – which was a joy), there’s also a whole level of gender stuff that happens here. Johansen is making a bold attempt to shut up those who might still somehow believe that women can’t hang with the boys and Kelsea Raleigh Glynn might well be the decisive blow. She has men discounting her opinion from moment one and each time she gets proved right, then has to prove herself right all over again, we see the rusty wheels of progress beginning to turn.
That said, the men aren’t too bad. The Mace is a badass but not just a stereotypical one, the Fetch is intriguing as hell (although, again, what’s up with the trope of calling people with “The ____”), and the myriad of other characters – men and women – who circle around Kelsea all feel alive. Some of them haven’t quite shucked their genre trappings yet but I’m not sure, frankly, that they need to. They are serving purposes and those purposes are as important as being fully-developed characters in a novel like this one, where the focus on development (quite rightly) lives with our heroine and those closest to her.
Anyway, like the best fantasy, it’s addressing real-world contemporary issues – and, like the best fantasy, it’s having fun too. A whole host of questions are raised over the course of this book about the intentions of various characters, about their mysterious or shadowed backstories, about the reality of magic in this world, and very few of them get anything like an answer. That is, of course, because this is book one in a trilogy. Still, it was nice to be experiencing that sort of rush of curiosity; I never felt like I was missing information, only that it was somewhere ahead of me yet to be discovered. My faith, in this respect, definitely holds out for book two.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The book doesn’t reinvent the wheel in any regard, although its serious attention to sociopolitical issues is worth noting as is the strong female lead. With a couple more books like this, maybe we’ll stop finding strong female leads an exceptional thing and they’ll just be accepted as status quo – but until then, you could do a lot worse than visiting the Tearling. It reads with an increasingly fast pace and despite some of my red flags regarding the shall-we-say unique setting, I was won over completely by the end. I wish I could read The Invasion of the Tearling right now!