Written by: Erika Johansen
Book #1 / 3 in The Queen of the Tearling Series
Rating: 4.5 / 5 stars
Summary: An untested young princess must claim her throne, learn to become a queen, and combat a malevolent sorceress in an epic battle between light and darkness in this spectacular debut. Young Kelsea Raleigh was raised in hiding after the death of her mother, Queen Elyssa, far from the intrigues of the royal Keep and in the care of two devoted servants who pledged their lives to protect her. Growing up in a cottage deep in the woods, Kelsea knows little of her kingdom’s haunted past . . . or that its fate will soon rest in her hands.
Though born of royal blood and in possession of the Tear sapphire, a jewel of immense power and magic, Kelsea has never felt more uncertain of her ability to rule. But the shocking evil she discovers in the heart of her realm will precipitate an act of immense daring, throwing the entire kingdom into turmoil—and unleashing the foreign leader Red Queen’s vengeance. A cabal of enemies with an array of deadly weapons, from crimson-caped assassins to the darkest blood magic, plots to destroy her. But Kelsea is growing in strength and stealth, her steely resolve earning her loyal allies, including the Queen’s Guard, led by the enigmatic Lazarus, and the intriguing outlaw known simply as “the Fetch.”
Kelsea’s quest to save her kingdom and meet her destiny has only just begun. Riddled with mysteries, betrayals, and treacherous battles, Kelsea’s journey is a trial by fire that will either forge a legend . . . or destroy her.
“Those who cease to worry about their souls often find them difficult to reclaim later.”
Review: I think the disclaimer ahead of this is the fact that I’ve already read the sequel (Invasion of the Tearling) as well, so some thoughts are influenced by the fact that I see where the plot continues in the next book.
Scrolling through Goodreads reviews, it seems to be one of those books that people either love or hate, and I was definitely one of the former. Although it definitely is long and sometimes painstakingly descriptive, I was engrossed in the world that Johansen created and I read the entire book over the course of two days, which is actually relatively fast for my schedule. Most people think this to be some medieval fantasy book, but it is actually dystopian, a future developed after a reversion to medieval times after the fracturing of a high-tech world because of circumstances outlined better in the sequel. It follows Kelsea, the right heir to the throne, who was previously whisked away as a baby for her protection, as she returns to her kingdom to take her rightful place. She is returning to a country ruled by corrupted figures and frightened by the mysterious ruler of another country, Mortmesne, with her only support being her loyal guards as she begins to make her own lasting affects on the country, naturally making some very powerful people furious along the way.
In my opinion, Johansen is a very talented writer. Some people thought her descriptions were exhaustive, but I think that even the smallest and potentially irrelevant details helped create this intricate scene of New London, Kelsea’s kingdom, and the world surrounding it. The plot definitely has a lot of unanswered questions, but that is to be expected with the first book of a series, and I can kind of see where Johansen wants to go with each potential mystery or plot hole. She’s very cognizant of every new subplot she creates, and although there are several, she is able to interweave them expertly and keep the reader intrigued with each. Additionally, even if a line of dialogue did not add to the plot, it added to characterization or at least as a supporting piece in defining what type of civilization Kelsea became surrounded with. The writing itself is worthy of at least 4 stars, and it captured my interest so readily that I was prepared to give it five, if not for small errors in Johansen’s characterizations.
Overall, I actually really like Kelsea, our heroine. I have only two small complaints about her, which is significant considering I can usually develop a laundry list of complaints about YA heroines. The first is that considering she grew up in a forest her entire life, interacting with only a very small handful of people, Johansen isn’t always super consistent with what she knows about the public and doesn’t know. For example, Kelsea is expressed as understanding what an alcoholic is just by looking at one, even though she’s never seen one herself. This is a very minuscule error, however, and I largely overlooked most of this discretions. The second is that Johansen tries almost too hard to make Kelsea self-depreciating, in a lightly veiled attempt to make her seem more relatable by noting that she is not particularly beautiful. If it has to be stated every other chapter that the character is notably normal looking, it kind of defeats the purpose, in my honest opinion.
But I like Kelsea’s moral compass above all. Does she act a bit reckless sometimes? Oh, yeah, definitely. But she’s a nineteen year old princess who is basically interacting the evil bowels of humanity for the first time. I love that she knows what she wants and that she goes for it, and that she wants to do right by her people who have really only been “her people” for like a few weeks. In addition to Kelsea, I love the Queens’ Guard – their badass leader Mace/Lazarus (which are both incredibly fitting names), the young and shy Pen, the inseparable Elston and Kibb, the moody and mysterious Mhurn, and so on. Honestly, I kind of want a whole story of how they were brought together to form the Guard, because even though guards are usually boring and bland, they are all brilliant and are shown as real humans. In addition to the Guard protecting her, she also finds a sort of ally in the Fetch, a mysterious, illusive, and infamous thief in New London who saves her at all the right times and threatens her (in a very nice way) to act right, and who I want a whole book about, basically. Beyond that, I love all of the side characters, such as Kelsea’s newfound psychic and stoic advisor, Andalie;
As for the “villains”, we have plenty – Arlen Thorne, the slaverunner; the Holy Father, head of the not-so-holy Church; Kelsea’s sin-burdened uncle and New London’s closest thing to a ruler, the Regent; and finally, the Red Queen, leader of Mortmesne, who is made out to be the arch villain in this book. Here, we have another reason this book isn’t five star worthy, because the Red Queen and the Regent, warned before her return to be two of Kelsea’s more notable obstacles, fell so flat of the hype. She’s insecure, arrogant, and almost lazy with just enough power to hold control but to be no little threat. He’s sloppy, addicted and vulnerable to his vices, and uninventive. Arlen Thorne and the Holy Father, in my honest opinion, provide more of an imminent threat to Kelsea, acting rebelliously within New London to bring Kelsea down after she reclaims the throne. The Red Queen may control the army of another country, but Arlen Thorne has a lot of Underworld contacts and the Holy Father has loyal church-goers ready to do as they say in Kelsea’s own kingdom, no matter the cost.
I’ve seen a lot of reviews giving this book 1 or 2 stars, and, as is wont to happen with some books, I got a little protective over it. I understand why some people were frustrated with the book or felt they got little out of it, but there is a lot of underlying commentary about the way that our nation is headed. I may be reading much too far into this, but I think it’s too obvious to ignore. First off, the presence of the Church and their strong hand in the government’s proceedings is entirely too similar to the lack of separation of church and state in American politics, which is something I feel strongly about. I’m a Catholic, but a very liberal one at that, and I don’t believe that the rules and laws of a nation should be based on the beliefs of a fraction of its populace. Although the Tearlings’ Church is definitely more sinister and satanical than the Christian belief system, the amount of power and the arrogance that is created out of a narrow-minded viewpoint are unfortunately too prevalent in our own present day culture. Additionally, it is revealed that the previous world before New London’s existence fell because of a high dependency on technology and I don’t know if it’s the sense of defeatism that Johansen attributes to the citizens of this new world or what, but it sounds like Johansen believes our dependency on technology and attachment to religion will be our civilization’s demise, which is very intriguing indeed.
Overall, this is one of my favorite books I’ve read in the last year, and it left me pleasantly surprised considering it is technically categorized as a YA book. For those of you who want to read it because of the summary’s description of it being a Hunger Games and Game of Thrones mash-up, don’t, because it really is not. I’m not overtly a huge fan of either series, but I do love them in their own ways, and The Queen of the Tearling shares little to no characteristics except perhaps a few scene descriptors. This is also one of those books that I’d be very interested to see how they make it into a movie, although I’m not sure how I feel about Emma Watson as Kelsea. Oh, well, I’ll probably pay to go see it anyway. No matter how much I complain about them, book to move adaptations are my guilty pleasure as I love seeing how some people decipher passages and character descriptors in novels. Let me know if you have a favorite book to movie adaptation in the comments! I’m always looking for good recommendations.