The Short Version: Queen Kelsea has given herself up to the Red Queen, leaving the Mace as regent – but forces are massing, some with power beyond imagining, that will tear the Tearling apart with or without her. As Kelsea continues to see visions of the past, she discovers the true power of the Tear sapphires and must make a choice that could change the very fabric of the world.
The Review: Ending a trilogy – and actually doing it – is a tough gig. Not only do you have to wrap up the many plots you’ve put in motion, but you have to do so in a way that doesn’t feel like wrapping up plots and instead feels like organic forward motion. Sometimes this leads to second Death Star syndrome, sometimes it leads to a radical departure, and sometimes you get the perfect (if not always satisfying) conclusion – and I was pleased to find that Erika Johansen landed in the third category with The Fate of the Tearling.
The Invasion of the Tearling was one of the most extraordinary leaps forward from book one to two I’ve ever experienced; the revelation of the pre-Crossing world being a call-it-post-Drumpf America and the radical tonal shift Johansen employed between the Tearling story and the America story were just fantastic. She surprised me, genuinely, and I tore through that book to know what would happen. When it ended on one hell of a The Empire Strikes Back note, I found myself looking eagerly towards this past summer. It’s one of the few times that a book’s delay genuinely upset me, because I was so anxious to find out what would happen.
But I have to say, there were signs of wear and tear on this book. It took me altogether too long to grasp who was who again, to remember the ancillary characters like Brenna and Ewen and put together how they connected to everyone. On top of this, a jump in the past from the Crossing to some dozen or so years later left me a little more destabilized, as I tried to recall whether or not I’d met any of these people previously. And instead of falling right into the swing of things, this book took a while for me to really get my bearings again – I think due to the somewhat uncertain flow of time. Queen Kelsea, now a captive of Mortmesne, has been imprisoned for… how long? It would seem by the flow of the story to be perhaps weeks, two or three months at tops, but it would be much longer by the behavior of some of the characters – and this slightly diffuse storytelling made for difficult reentry.
Another difficult mark was how some of these characters feel a bit less original than they did in the past. Aisa, for example, feels more like Arya Stark than ever before, and her plotlines even hewed a bit too close to Martin’s epic saga for my taste. The complexities of The Mace are mentioned but often left to the side, to be wondered about. Even the Red Queen becomes far more ordinary than she ever maybe should’ve been, in the face of the Man in Black/Jacob-esque scene between Row Finn and the Fetch that opens the book and the vampire-demon-child menace that… well, if it’d ever come up in books one and two, I totally missed it. “The Orphan”, this monster is called, and I guess we wouldn’t’ve heard about it because of when Kelsea made her deal with Row Finn but that timing doesn’t really make much sense either and I…
…well, honestly, I realized that it didn’t so much matter. I could (and undoubtedly will) wonder and ponder about the timeline and all that jazz because that’s the kind of audience I am; I like to know the stuff that I can know, to have the whole story make sense in my head – to see the whole board. But also, I made the choice to just dive into the rest of the book and let it wash over me, paradoxes or no – and the thrill that I felt at the first two installments came rushing back. Our heroes are down for the count and even in the face of triumph over one evil, another two pop up to take its place. But Johansen isn’t interested in just putting these characters through post-Martin bleak extremes of trial and darkness – she’s curious about why human beings, collectively, get ourselves into these situations. And so that’s why we spend a solid third or more of this book at the crucial turning point for William Tear’s settlers: just long enough after the Crossing for a new generation to know nothing of it other than the stories their Elders choose to tell.
And it’s in the choosing that they do wrong. Johansen earns her post-apocalyptic stripes in these scenes, exploring far more effectively than The Hunger Games, Divergent, or any other dystopic YA series has managed to do the reasons for the darkness in humanity. We see it today in the present, when people seek to turn away from the horrible things in the world or to crack down ever more violently when the violence really only extends the cycle of violent acts that will, if we’re not careful, eventually destroy us all long before the planet will. We must not only bear witness, we must share and engage – that seems to be the moral of Johansen’s series. That choosing to act in the hopes of doing right, even if you make a bad decision, is better than turning a blind eye.
At the end of the book, and I won’t spoil it because it is one hell of an ending, Kelsea must make a choice that I don’t envy her. It reminded me of the last arc of The Adventure Zone and the offer given to the adventurers by the Temporal Chalice – and I thought both versions of the tale, which tell flip sides of a similar decision really, are great storytelling using a complicated and often poorly done device. We can talk about it more after you finish – but suffice to say, I liked this ending and found it to be an honest and bold choice instead of a ‘pleasing’ one. I’ll be curious to see if that’s the minority opinion or not.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I can’t shake the fact that this book felt a bit more unruly and a bit less taut than its predecessor – and there’s a fair bit of plotting that feels like, well, plotting. Things just don’t develop quite as organically as they did previously, but that’s okay because Johansen says “strap in, we’re doing it live” and then blasts through a deeply felt philosophical examination of why human beings are sometimes evil and how we can change for the better that’s all wrapped up inside a realistic and gritty fantasy adventure. All in all, a solid end (that ending, too, hoo-boy) to a great trilogy – one that I hope gets all the credit it deserves for being at the top of its field these days.