Themes Explored: dystopia, monarchy, romance, vampires, death, destiny, fate, time, fantasy, fiction, evil, hope, civilization, hopelessness, magic, swordplay
Synopsis: In less than a year, Kelsea Glynn has grown from an awkward teenager into a powerful monarch and a visionary leader.
And as she has come into her own as the Queen of the Tearling, she has transformed her realm. But in her quest to end corruption and restore justice, she has made many enemies – chief among them the evil and feared Red Queen, who ordered the armies of Mortmesne to march against the Tear and crush them.
To protect her people from such a devastating invasion, Kelsea did the unthinkable – naming the Mace, the trusted head of her personal guards, Regent in her place, she surrendered herself and her magical sapphires to her enemy. But the Mace will not rest until he and his men rescue their sovereign from her prison in Mortmesne. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Review: What would you do if given the chance to change the course of history? Would you stand by and watch the world burn, or try to salvage a Utopian society out of the wreckage? Erika Johansen’s Tearling trilogy explores a dystopian world where modern civilization collapsed, for unmentioned reasons. William Tear, however, possess some magical sapphires that allow him to manipulate time. As explored in the second installment, The Invasion of the Tearling, Tear selected “exemplary” members of society to go to this new time/world with him. Unfortunately tragedy ensures and the White Ship, which carried all the American Doctors, shipwrecked and left the new colony with only rudimentary medical knowledge. Johansen never really explains where in time Tear went or where on the planet this new world exists. However, this new world does have an abundance of magic and multiple people willing to exploit these new powers. This leads to the main axis of tension in the story with the Tearling representing the Utopian ideal and the Queen of Mortmesne as the evil empress using magic to bend the world to her will. As shown in the The Fate of the Tearling things did not work out quite as well as William Tear imagined.
While I quite enjoyed this trilogy, it definitely earns points for originality, I do take issue with some of the underlying philosophy that drove the story. Based upon this trilogy, Johansen crafted the story upon the philosophical basis of humanistic atheism, also known as secular atheism. In the context of this trilogy, Kelsea, the Queen of the Tearling, was raised as an atheist and taught to view religion as a plague upon the world. Indeed, the Christian religion is depicted as nothing more than a way to brainwash and control the populace. Though I did wonder if Johansen based her “version” of Christianity on the Medieval Roman Catholic Church, because she drew a lot of a parallels to the church in that period. I bring up this point because the underlying feeling of this book was one of despondent hopelessness. Without any higher ideal to strive for, all the characters in this book only had themselves to look up to as examples of morality and ethics. So they end up worshiping William Tear as the embodiment of all good things. Unfortunately, like all men elevated to such heights, he fails to live up to such lofty heights. With no higher authority to answer to or greater purpose to fulfill, what is left but empty promises and hollow words?
Another quibble I had with the story was one minor subplot involving reproduction. Apparently, in this brave new world, the number one concern of the Utopian society is abortion. Due to the White Ship shipwrecking, this “perfect” society is running dangerously low on diaphragms and other pregnancy preventing medical devices. For a society trying to colonize a new world, I would think they would want to actually encourage population growth. After all civilization only survives if there are people to pass it on to in the future. I felt that this one subplot felt rather anachronistic.
The Fate of the Tearling involves two narratives, Kelsea’s present and events 300 years in the past. About 3/4ths of the story takes place in the past. In the past story line, William Tear attempts to fulfill mankind’s “longest held dream” of a perfect Utopian society. Though I always though man’s longest held dream was to live in freedom free from dictators, but I digress. Utopia is a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions; essentially a place where everyone is equal and lives according to their own moral code. However, Tear discovers that humanity has a tendency to sink to lowest common denominator when it comes to morality and ethics. While most people merely want to live in peace and provide for their children, there are always individuals who want more power, prestige, and immortality. Unfortunately for Tear one of these people manages to corrupt his perfect society.
Without a real government structure, law and order, and basic steps to ensure the maintenance of a polite society, Tear’s utopia descends into anarchy and results in the creation of a strong armed monarchy. What Tear failed to account for was that a “good” society is only as strong as the weakest member. The closest thing to “utopia” mankind can achieve is a representative republic that protects everyone’s right to freedom of religion and speech but also maintains enough law and order to prevent society from descending into anarchy. Otherwise the result is a lot like that depicted in this book, with otherwise good people descending into a dystopian society with no rules or governance that is susceptible to extreme corruption and evil. How else do you explain a society that is willing to sell its own children into slavery in order to prevent war?
Overall, I felt rather let down by the conclusion of the trilogy. Many of Johansen’s revelations did not fully answer some of the lingering questions-like if the sapphires were from this new world, how did Tear come to possess them-and what victories were accomplished felt anticlimactic. Threats that loomed over Kelsea in the first two installments, including the Red Queen or Brenna, were resolved basically with little fanfare. Near mythic figures from the Tearling’s past, mainly William and Jonathan Tear, were incredibly unimpressive and limp in person. While this is perfectly fine, I did have to wonder why their respective disappearance and murder launched the Tearling into such long-lasting turmoil. When Kelsea catches looks of them in her visions, they appear rather clueless about how to govern effectively. Even when they were alive, their utopia appeared more hellish than serene. Most frustrating of all, the sapphires and how the Crossing actually happened is never really explained but left shrouded in opaque vagueness.
The Fate of the Tearling, Harper, 2016, ISBN 9780062290427