The Short Version: Kelsea Glynn has made quite an impression as the new Queen of the Tearling – but the Mort invasion is coming one way or another and she’s running out of options. But as her magic begins to change her and voices from all sides begin to offer potentially dangerous options, she also begins to have strange visions of a young woman in trouble in a time and place long ago…
The Review: Okay, heads up: there will be some spoiler discussion in this here review. I hate to do it, but I find it unavoidable because to not talk about it would write off about half of the book – the half of the book that I think I loved the most. The ideas, the storytelling, the story ramifications… I’d hate to not mull them over here. So be forewarned.
Also, I’ll take the first bit of this review to talk more broadly and then I’ll warn you again.
Invasion picks up pretty much where Queen left off, give or take a few weeks. Kelsea is still riding high off the ambitious adventure that closed that first volume, but things are getting hairy for the people of the Tearling and fast. The Mort army is inexorably drawing near, the new Holy Father is no fan of the Queen, and Kelsea is changing somehow – both internally and externally. There’s a little bit of fifth-Harry-Potter-book about her emotional strife but I mean that kindly: she’s not even out of her teens, after all. Of course there’s going to be some emotion flying around and the way Johansen deals with it is refreshing: she lets it be there, not a primary thing but not forgotten about, even in the midst of an invasion and with the future of the country on the line. Because no matter how good of a person you are, if you’re a 19 year old and in that position, you can’t just shut off your hormones or whatever. It’s going to come up – you just have to do what you can with it.
The political/military plot continues on brilliantly – although the ending of this book is such a surprising cliffhanger. I say surprising simply because I felt like I’d missed a little something; there was some level of consideration or understanding that the reader isn’t privy to just yet but that I wanted to have been privy to, just to slightly better understand the gobsmacking turn of events in those final pages.
The characters continue to be worth investing in, if I did have a moment of trying to recall which name referred to which person outside the inner character circle of the Mace, Pen, Andalie, the Keep priest, and a few others. Various generals and military/politico figures are named and it takes a little while to remember just who did what – some names, it would seem, are more memorable than others. But Kelsea continues to be a smart, fully-formed, and reliably human character as do those around her. The Mace’s opaqueness does start to get a little irritating at times (come on, guy – just tell the Queen the things she needs to know) but I like the sense we have of him still playing a bigger game than any of the rest of them are aware of. Ditto the development of the Mort Queen: she goes from being a Villain to a more nuanced villain. It’s nice work, all around.
But anyway. Let’s get to the really amazing stuff. SPOILERS come up from here on out.
So Kelsea has begun to get these weird fainting spells that are also, it would seem, visions – of a strange time and place, sometime long ago and far away… a place called Manhattan, in a time roughly the mid-21st Century.
INSERT EXPLODING HEAD GIF HERE
It’s page 35 that this happens, early enough that it’s almost not at all a spoiler… but man, I’m so glad I didn’t know it was coming because I exclaimed “WHAAAAAAT” on the subway and drew odd stares that I ignored because I had to know what the hell was going on. And in a world where there are lots of dystopic mid-21st century futures populating our fiction, Johansen’s stands out for me. It’s not as noir-gritty as Adam Sternbergh or Nathan Larson but perhaps more realistic for that, more akin to Edan Lepucki’s vision of California perhaps. Private security, walled compounds in the ‘burbs, a combination military-corporate government, a terrifyingly conservative President who enacts a series of laws that restrict (among other things) cultural content, a woman’s right to choose anything (abortion, divorce, jobs), who gets to stay in this country … yeah, pretty much exactly what we’re all imagining might happen / are terrified will happen.
But Johansen is writing a fantasy book… right? We know in the first book that fictions like Shakespeare and Harry Potter exist – but knowing that does not prepare you for the shock, like cold water, of spending nearly half the novel in another place/time with another character: Lily. And Lily’s life is both much easier to imagine (it’s near-future after all) and much more difficult because you think you’re reading a fantasy novel. And Johansen shifts so seamlessly from a world of magic to a dystopic world of guns and abusive men that you have to just stand up and applaud – because both worlds feel wholly real. It’s a testament to her talent that she can work simultaneously in two modes and I spent most of the rest of the book (just under 500 pages, give or take) admiring what was happening even as I was engrossed in it. It just knocked me over, how well the transition works – and how it ends up being connected to Kelsea.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Man, talk about a second book that improves on the first. Johansen takes the world she’s built in the first book, the characters she spent time developing, and just keeps pressing forward – all the while simultaneously opening up new avenues and engaging with issues of the present in a fantastical context. There’s heart-pounding action, tons of surprises, and above all a really assured authorial hand. If the split focus leaves the reader wanting more from both sides, I think that’s actually only a good thing. I am impatient for the third book in this trilogy – I think it’ll cap off a truly excellent entry in the modern fantasy canon.