Review: The Queen of the Tearling

Erika Johansen’s popular NA/adult fantasy trilogy starts with: The Queen of the Tearling, a beautiful book inside and out. I had been putting off reading this trilogy because I wanted to have them all in matching paperbacks on my shelf before I started. But this book tied for the win in my Choose My Next Read interactive post for June, so I read it by request, and I’m so glad I did.

thequeenofthetearlingAbout the book: Kelsea, sole heir to the Tearling throne, has been raised by a foster family for most of her life. 18 years have passed between the death of her mother, the infamous Queen Elyssa, and Kelsea’s own coronation. When the Queen’s Guard arrives on her nineteenth birthday at the cottage where Kelsea and her adoptive parents have been hiding on the outskirts of the Tearling kingdom, she has no choice but to go with them and rule the Tearling for as many days as she can survive. Between the assassins, her greedy uncle who wants the throne for himself, the mysterious and dangerous Fetch who takes matters into his own hands, and the powerful Red Queen of the neighboring kingdom with her sights set on making the Tearling bow down before her, Kelsea’s chances of survival are slim. The kingdom is in shambles–the bad guys want to take advantage and win control for themselves, and the good guys are so cautious about preventing further damage that unless Kelsea can prove herself a powerful force for good, she’s in danger even from the people that should be on her side. It will take a miracle to right all the wrongs in the Tearling–is Kelsea that miracle, or is she just a lost girl who’s been lied to all her life?

“The future was only the disasters of the past, waiting to happen anew.”

About the layout: the entire book is written with third person narration that primarily follows our main character, Kelsea, but also shifts to focus on other characters who are crucial to the central action of the story.

Kelsea makes a great main character. She’s not quite a “chosen one” in the typical way that a seeming nobody is plucked from obcurity and placed on a pedestal, but she is thrust into responsibility and expected to save the entire kingdom. She’s intelligent and brave, though she’s clearly inexperienced; it’s a great balance of power and naivité.

“If there was a God, he would feel like this, standing astride the world. But Kelsea was terrified, sensing that if she wanted to break the world in half she could do it, of course she could, but there was more here than she knew. Everything came with a price.”

My favorite parts of the book, though, may have been the sections that were not focused on Kelsea. Every now and then there appears a section focused on an alternative point of view, highlighting a character who’s important but standing on the periphery of the main action. These sections never fail to impress by proving that characters who could have been rather flat are actually full of personality and unique motivations. This is a multi-faceted tale that’s well-thought-out and intriguing from every angle.

Beyond the characters, this is a high fantasy trilogy that’s set in the future of the modern world, which blends fact and fiction in an interesting way. The Tearling seems like a whole new made-up land, but every now and then there are references to real places and details known from our present world. Mostly these familiar details take the form of real-life countries and places, and real-life literature. Rowling’s books get a direct reference, and Tolkien’s. They’re small details, but they give the whole book an extra shot of reality that keeps the reader a little more personally invested.

“Even a book can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and when that happens, you blame the hands, but you also read the book.”

I also appreciate the way magic works in this book. So many times in fantasy, magic is something that comes unexpectedly from within a person and it appears in fairly predictable ways–but in The Queen of the Tearling, magic is not widely understood or expected and it’s linked to the Tearling sapphires rather than Kelsea herself.Very few characters seem to understand the significance of the sapphires or their power, and Kelsea is not among them. The magic the sapphires possess is a force of its own, affected by her anger but almost a character in its own right. The power is something that Kelsea borrows rather than possesses, which is refreshing.

“She’d checked her sapphires often, but they simply hung there, heavy and cold. For today, at least, they were only jewels.”

The only aspect that I might find complaint with was the passage of time. There are a few specific deadlines that are significant in the story, mostly revolving around the “shipments” that the Red Queen demands, which make the reader want to keep track of the timeline of events in the book, but each new section of narration often jumps into the meatier parts of the action before clues are given regarding how much time has passed since the last segment. It’s not impossible to follow, but it’s a little more difficult than it needs to be.

A warning: there are some graphic scenes, and references to rape. The violence of the book is bloody and deadly, but usually takes the form of quick self-defense. The rape discussions are never actual scenes of rape, but rather stories about crimes past. None of these moments are particularly unreadable, but they’re meant to make the characters (and the readers) uncomfortable with the ways of life that have settled in the kingdoms at this time. I believe the point of the trilogy is for these wrongs (and others) to be eliminated, but in the meantime there are some of these uncomfortable elements occuring in the background.

This is a series, though, where the bad guys tend to get what’s coming to them.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I knew I would like this book, though I’d heard that there were a lot of politics to it and that always makes me hesitate. Sometimes politics bore or confuse me, but nothing about this book bored or confused me. I would definitely say that it’s advanced enough not to be a YA book, but there are probably teens who could comfortably read it anyway. I wish I had read this sooner, although I do appreciate being able to read all the books at once instead of waiting for publication dates. I’m definitely going to be reading book two, The Invasion of the Tearling, in the very near future.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like adult high fantasy with multiple perspectives, check out Brent Weeks’ The Black Prism, which is the first book in the Lightbringer series. This is also a book about a kingdom on the verge of disaster, but the villain is slippery and hard to pinpoint because everyone in the book is morally gray.
  2. If you’re looking for a fantasy book with a strong female lead in the NA age range, try Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses, the first book in a trilogy full of oppressed faeries and the mortal girl who may be able to save them all, but could very likely lose herself in the process.

What’s next: I’m going to be reading Sarah Healy’s upcoming (June 27) release, The Sisters Chase this weekend. It’s one of my Book of the Month Club picks for June, and it’s not on my official TBR for the month, but it’s what I’m in the mood for. It’s a gritty tale about two sisters whose parents have died and left them to fend for themselves–they’re fiercely protective of each other but make many questionable choices as they juggle the past and future and travel across the country.

A reminder: there are still just a few hours left to check out the July edition of Choose My Next Read and vote for a book you’d like to see me review next month!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

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