“Even a book can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and when that happens, you blame the hands, but you also read the book.” -Erika Johansen
I recently began participating in the Flourish & Blotts Book Club that I discovered post LeakyCon 2014 and the first book we decided to read was The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. On the day that we were supposed to begin reading and read the first two chapters, I sat down and didn’t really get up again until I had finished reading the book. That night, I accidentally read the entire book instead of just the first two chapters. That’s right, for some people in this world, accidentally reading a whole book it is a legitimate problem. I am unashamed to say I am one of those people. I am now going to attempt to write my first book review since undergrad, so please bear with me. VERY MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD.
The Queen of The Tearling (QOTT), the first novel in a trilogy written by Erika Johansen, was published by Harper Collins in New York, NY on July 8, 2014. Set in a future feudal society after “The Crossing,” a mysterious event where most modern technology, modern medicine, and books were lost, QOTT’s world-building and character development are on par with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Series. Anyone who knows me knows what a huge compliment it is for me to compare any part of any series to “the seven volumes of Rowling,” as the series is referred to in The Queen of the Tearling.
The Queen of the Tearling is basically an incredibly dark fairy tale with real world social problems like hunger, slavery, sexual assault, and domestic violence. Johansen manages to cover these topics with a seriousness, empathy, and sincerity that I have found other recent authors lacking. The book is equal parts political thriller, mystery, and fantasy and makes for a compelling read.
The novel starts on Princess Kelsea Glynn’s nineteenth birthday as she is whisked away from the foster parents who raised her in exile. The Queen’s Guard, an organization largely made up of men who served Kelsea’s mother, Elyssa, when she was the Queen of the Tearling and entirely made up of men who refuse to tell Kelsea anything about Elyssa or her reign, despite the fact that the former Queen has been dead for many years, is comprised of nine men of various ages. Their tight-lipped attitude is strange, though not entirely unexpected since Carlin and Barty, Kelsea’s foster parents, managed to gloss over the parts of history related to Elyssa in the process of providing Kelsea with the education she needs to be a good queen. Kelsea inherits a love of books and reading from her foster parents that will become an important theme throughout the story.
A good chunk of The Queen of the Tearling takes place during Kelsea and the Queen’s Guard’s journey to New London, the capital city where Kelsea was born and where she will take up her throne. During their travels the group encounters assassins sent by Kelsea’s uncle who has been acting as Regent, dangerous trained crows who succeed in maiming Kelsea, and a group of assassin’s led by the mysterious man known only as “the Fetch.”
After arriving in New London, Kelsea’s first act is to abolish the slave trade and destroy the cages that were used to take the slaves to Kelsea’s enemy to the east, the Red Queen. Kelsey’s coronation ceremony is filled with drama and intrigue that leave her isolated in her castle for a short time afterwards.
During her time spent at the castle, Kelsea gets to know the members of the Queen’s Guard better and even strikes up a sort of friendship with a slave she freed (from her uncle) who is a seer and Kelsea’s servant. An attempt is made on Kelsea’s life and she very cleverly finds a way to tell her servant without giving away that she is calling for help. After this attempt, it becomes apparent that the attempted assassins have help from inside the castle and Pen, a member of the Queen’s Guard, is assigned to be Kelsea’s personal body guard.
One of the Queen’s Guard, who Kelsea becomes particularly close to, returns to the cottage where she was raised and surprises her by bringing Carlin’s library back to the castle. Kelsea is thrilled by having all of the books and opens a library for castle employees, as printing presses are one of the pieces of technology that were lost in The Crossing and books can no longer be mass produced.
The ending of the Queen of the Tearling and the title of its sequel, The Invasion of the Tearling (Release Date: June 9, 2015), lead me to believe that we will be seeing a lot more of the Red Queen as the series goes on.
One of my favorite aspects of The Queen of the Tearling is the focus on the strength of women and the fact that the crown is passed from mother to daughter in the Tearling. While Kelsea certainly has help from both men and women along the way, it is her own strength that ultimately saves the day.
The Queen of the Tearling is a gripping novel that I stayed up well into the night to finish reading. I highly recommend that anyone who likes fantasy, sci-fi, or young adult fiction makes the time investment to read it. Another thing that I find tremendously empowering is that the protagonist is described as being plain. It is typical for a princess/queen in a fantasy series to be breathtakingly beautiful and the fact that Kelsea doesn’t play into that particular trope and unrealistic expectations forced on women is refreshing.