*Note: This is a review of books I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers. Proceed with appropriate caution.
I picked up The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen on a whim at my local bookstore. It had a pretty cover, and the blurb on the back sounded like one of those fantasy novels I’ve enjoyed in the past but probably wouldn’t reread ever again.
That was the first time Johansen turned my assumptions upside down.
The book begins with an armed guard fetching the 19-year-old Kelsea, the queen ascendant, from her foster parents’ cottage in the woods to take her to the Keep for her coronation. Sounds traditional enough – a hidden heir, a medieval-ish setting, mysterious circumstances and vague dangers. But the Tearling, Kelsea’s struggling kingdom, is anything but traditional.
I have to review the Queen of the Tearling trilogy as a whole because it operates best that way. A coworker of mine saw me reading the first book at work, freaked out, loaned me the sequel, and graciously let me read her copy of the final book (once she was done with it, of course) when it came out. She pointed out that the first book works mainly to set up the world, nothing truly exceptional (I thought it was well-written, but so are many traditional fantasy books). It’s the second book and its use of magic and time that break new ground in fantasy worldbuilding. Discovering the true nature of the Crossing that brought settlers to the Tearling was just so great, even in a genre that tends toward sudden twists (and that’s all I’m going to say about it because I don’t want to deprive anyone of reading Johansen’s work by giving my much less wonderful paraphrase here).
The Tearling trilogy consistently challenges conventions of the fantasy genre, setting readers up to anticipate tropes and not really mind it, because we like the characters and would appreciate them anyway – then taking a sharp left turn and refusing to fulfill those tropes. For instance, the identity of Kelsea’s father is a longstanding mystery throughout the three books, with any number of powerful, immortal, or badass candidates available. Then it turns out to be someone who died in the first book, someone with a hamartia, someone who was not special beyond being dear to his friends. But it doesn’t fall flat, because in every instance of these unexpected twists, major or minor, Johansen stays true to the integrity of the world she’s created.
One of the things I appreciate most about this world is its strong women. From Kelsea herself to her adversary the anonymous Red Queen to the kickass bodyguard of the Tearling’s founder, there is no dearth of women wielding power here – and diverse kinds of power too. There are several survivors of domestic abuse. There are physical fighters. There are intelligent teachers who strive to pass on knowledge. But Johansen’s world does not lack shallow, weak, or cruel women either. There are women who turn bitter from their trauma, and women to whom remarkable things do not come naturally. There are women who have no idea what they want, and women consumed by their desires. Kelsea in particular walks a thin line, observing and even living in others’ stories (more on that in a minute) while she tries to decide how to harness or quash her own great temper.
Seeing so many different women be allowed to live out so many different endings and populate the world just as truthfully as the men made this a welcome addition to my bookshelf. Whereas other novels I’ve read, however well-intentioned or well-executed, can tend toward only one or two main female characters with the rest being mere props (e.g., the Badass Freedom Fighter, the Moody Mysterious Maven, the Unexpectedly Tech-Smart Plain One), in my opinion, the majority of Johansen’s female characters were given the kind of detailed attention that transforms characters into people.
I think honestly it was the characters that made me fall in love with these books, and Johansen’s loyalty to and respect for those characters’ authenticity that made the whole trilogy so enjoyable. The third book is a masterful conclusion, sweeping readers up and hurtling along toward an ending that will probably be nearly as polarizing as the series finale of How I Met Your Mother. If you enjoy any type of fantasy, I highly, highly recommend all three books (in order, of course).
The Queen of the Tearling – 4/5 stars
The Invasion of the Tearling – 5/5 stars
The Fate of the Tearling – 5/5 stars