*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
I’ve always liked the darker versions of beloved fairytales. There’s something fun about knowing the grisly details behind the glitter and glamour, perhaps because it makes sense to me that the malevolent beings in these stories should be harder to silence, harder to kill.
When I picked up Grimm’s Last Fairytale, I thought it was biographical, something about the Brothers Grimm and their fantastical collection of dark tales. But when it turned out to be a historical novel, I was pleasantly surprised. Middleton takes three storylines and braids them together like Rapunzel’s hair: the present, where Auguste accompanies her aging uncle Jacob Grimm around the German countryside of his youth, hoping to discuss family history he will not share; the past, where Jacob and Willi grow up together from happy boys to the family’s sole breadwinners to political activists; and some other realm, where a boy is sent by his mother to find a princess in the Rose King’s abandoned court.
Grimm himself is the common denominator throughout the book, slipping in and out of dreams that just might be the boy’s journey to the briar-bordered, sleeping palace – just might be, mind you, because here, reality is uncertain. But the relationships between the major characters prevent the book from being too abstract. Auguste’s hero-worship of her enigmatic uncle, the mutual devotion of the Grimm brothers, the boy’s unwavering loyalty to his mother, and even the manservant Kummel’s struggle to remain indifferent to his eccentric employers deepen the reader’s interest in the already engrossing plot.
There’s a lot of meat to this story: a man growing old, a lifetime of responsibilities piled up behind him; a woman whose life is on pause until she gathers the courage to ask the question burning a hole in her mind; the backstory of a well-known childhood tale. And that’s not even counting the historical context that pokes through in parts of Grimm’s life, particularly as his deeply held belief in the unification of Germany’s many little kingdoms conflicts with the world events around him. Then there’s Middleton’s gorgeous, expressive writing to carry it all.
While this type of dark, multiple-storyline book isn’t for everyone, I found it highly enjoyable and gave it 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.
What’s your favorite fairytale? Would you want to know the dark version behind it?
It’s bothered Bird and me for years. Every Christmas Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer comes on and every Christmas we wonder what on earth is wrong with the doll on the Island of Misfit Toys.
Turns out, according to producer Arthur Rankin, it’s psychological. In a 2007 NPR interview, he said that Dolly’s problem was low self-esteem and doubting herself. Depending on the backstory, it sounds like a similar situation to Jessie from Toy Story 2: after being rejected by her human owner, Dolly doesn’t trust her ability to be a good companion to another person. She’s hurt and depressed.
Some people dismiss this as inserting modern psychobabble into a cartoon from 50 years ago. This post claims that the alternative explanation is “as plain on the nose on your face” because the thing that actually makes Dolly a misfit is her lack of a nose.
I disagree. For one thing, plenty of cloth dolls in that style and time period didn’t have noses, or eyebrows, for that matter. And for another, the majority of the misfit toys are not simply missing something. Some fundamental part of them has been replaced with something different that interferes with their traditional function. The train has square wheels. The cowboy rides an ostrich. The bird swims but cannot fly. (OK, the elephant has the addition of polka dots, but he’s also a white elephant, which suggests being historically unwanted in the first place.) These toys are misfits because something in them has changed to the point that they no longer fit the mold, and something would have to change again for them to be considered “normal.” It’s not a one-step fix.
That’s why Dolly’s psychological misfit-ness rings true (for me, at least). She needs more than a few stitches or a new dress. There is something about her, as with the rest of the toys on the Island, that fits badly, that is not suited to her situation. The visibility or invisibility of her struggles does not alter their validity.
And even if the explanation was inserted later to cover up some forgetfulness on the writers’ part, I’ll take any opportunity to point to well-known characters in popular culture who can help me normalize mental health.
I have a little notebook with a cover like the Penguin Books version of Orwell’s 1984, two orange stripes framing the title spelled out in the center and the classic penguin eyeing me from between the words “complete” and “unabridged.” I regularly lose and rediscover this notebook over the course of the year. When I know where it is, I use it to record my favorite quotes, snippets of poetry, or bits of dialogue from various sources. Whenever I lose it and find it again, I reread the whole thing, reminding myself of what was important to me when I wrote down that batch of quotes, that particular conversation from the TV show Bones, this epigraph from a novel I’ve otherwise forgotten.
So here they are:
The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow sharp as swords.
In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of the traveller who would report them.
And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gate should be shut and the keys be lost.
For the longest way round is the shortest way home. ~Mere Christianity, CS Lewis
Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of human existence. ~Tennessee Williams
The words we take into ourselves help to shape us…They build and stretch and build again the chambers of our imagination. ~The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford
Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small. ~Virginia Woolf
Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith. And yet I continue to live in a world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone. I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wander. And yet glimmers of holy keep interrupting my gaze.
~Still, Lauren Winner
People need stories more than bread itself. They tell us how to live and why.~The Storyteller, Arabian Nights