I picked this book up after I heard it was going to be adapted into a screenplay. Generally I prefer to read the book before seeing the movie. The Queen of the Tearling is Erika Johansen’s debut novel.
Warning:This review does contain some spoilers
Themes Explored: coming of age, ethics of ruling, loyalty, love, family, loss, illiteracy, insecurity, trust, religion/lack of, self-destructive cycle of humanity, and slavery
Synopsis: The story begins with nineteen year old Kelsea Raleigh Glynn returning to her kingdom. Due to threats from Tearling’s powerful neighbor, Kelsea lived in exile in order to protect her life. For the past nineteen years, Kelsea’s uncle has ruled in her stead. However, the Red Queen, the sorceress queen of the neighboring Mortmesme, controls Tearling Regent. Most of the plot deals with Kelsea’s attempt to reclaim her throne, earn the loyalty of her subjects, obliterate the memory of her ineffective mother, and keep the Red Queen from conquering Tearling. Along the way Kelsea also deals with the realities of growing up, the ethics of ruling effectively and fairly, and adapting to life as a Queen of an impoverished and illiterate country.
Review: In a market saturated with dystopian themes, The Queen of the Tearling presents a fresh perspective. Instead of taking place in a dystopian society, Ms. Johansen is exploring civilization after the fall of an advanced society. Initially the setting feels medieval but the novel actually occurs in the future. After an environmental disaster destroyed the known world, a group of idealist flee and start anew society free from technology and modern society. The main narrative deals with how this civilization has matured since the founding. The secondary subplot deals with the ramifications of an illiterate society. Few of the original founders brought the written word to the new utopia. As a result, the society depicted is one where fewer and fewer people value the written word. Ms. Johansen’s motivation derives from the modern trend of people not bothering to voluntarily read. The novel merely takes this trends and projects the logical conclusion.
This novel works because of the fantastic characterization of Kelsea. Normally I find fictional teenage girls to either be excessively whiny or unconvincingly pragmatic. However, I felt that Ms. Johansen managed to find the right balance between teenage insecurity and the emerging self-confidence when fleshing out Kelsea’s character. The supporting characters were developed enough to be compelling, but not overly distracting. However, it would be nice if future installments fleshed out the characters of Lazarus and The Fetch. Both have the possibility to be excellent secondary primary characters. Furthermore the plot did not have any glaring holes and moved along at a nice pace. I was not bored and could not put the book down until I finished the final chapter.
I know Ms. Johansen is writing a trilogy and needs to keep some plot points undeveloped at the moment. However, there are several parts in the narrative where I would have preferred answers to questions. For instance, is Tearling on Earth, and if so, where? Also, where did magic come from? I am pretty sure that modern society has yet to develop anything remotely similar to fictional magic, so where did this wellspring of magic spring up from?
The Red Queen is the main villain of the story, yet her motivations are not articulated. A villain is only compelling if we actually see them plotting and manipulating events. Standing around philosophizing is not the best way to develop the antagonist. I hope the next book deals more with her rise to power, or else I will be highly disappointed. I can only support the hero/heroine if I fully understand the villain. While the first book established Kelsea’s rise to power, I hope the next couple of books delve more deeply into the world of Tearling. I think The Queen of the Tearling is one of the better Young Adult fantasy books published this year. I have high hopes for the next installment.
The Queen of the Tearling, Harper, 2014, ISBN: 9780062290366