Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen (The Tearling Trilogy: Book 3)

Invasion of the Tearling left me pretty much in the same state as its predecessor, admitting that the book had its issues, but still forced by the cliff-hanger ending and driving style to continue to see what happened. Also, with the second book improving upon the first, there was reason to expect an upswing in quality and an epic conclusion. Unfortunately, those expectations were catastrophically dashed. Before getting into my thoughts about Fate of the Tearling, bear in mind this review will necessarily contain spoilers for the rest of the series.

Kelsea Glynn has sacrificed everything for her people. Bargaining both her freedom and her magical sapphires for a three year stay of the Mort invasion, she is now on her way to Mort Mesne with the Red Queen’s retreating army. However, nothing the Red Queen nor her soldiers could do to Kelsea is worse than the visions Kelsea is experiencing, visions of Katy Rice, born just after the crossing, and how she sees the utopian community of William Tear fracture around her under the influence of the charismatic and power hungry Row Finn.

As Mortmesne’s rebels and Kelsea’s own guards mastermind a rescue, the Red Queen finds herself reliant on Kelsea for information, not about the sapphires, but about the oncoming threat of Row Finn and his dark army, who promise a devastation worse even than Mortmesne. As all things converge around Kelsea, truths will be revealed and fears confronted as the fate of the Tearling hangs in the balance.

The first thing I noticed about Fate of the Tearling, is that it felt far less a single character story. Though Kelsea is still definitely the main character, the perspective followed several journeys which let us explore more of the world and spend time with other characters, most of whom were people who I had wanted to see more of in the previous book. In particular, as far as exploration goes, just as we’d previously had Lilly’s story, showing us the events leading up to the crossing, so now Kelsea experienced visions of Katy Rice, a girl living 15 years after the crossing in the newly founded Tear, which promised revelations about who both Row Finn and the Fetch were, how the Tearling changed from a socialist utopia to a despicable absolute monarchy, and above all, how the magic of both Row Finn, and Kelsea’s sapphires factor into the equation.

Unfortunately, this meant that where the first two books ran along a strict path with a set destination, Fate of the Tearling had a generally more sprawling, less directed focus, juggling several plots at once, which sadly sacrificed the throbbing pace and inherently compelling style which the first two books had used to such great effect.

This might not in itself be a problem, after all, with a series so bereft of humour, character warmth or even such simple things as love and friendship, and with a world so steeped in rape, slaughter and slavery, a little calm before the storm to develop characters and pad out the world should have been a good thing, especially if the intersecting plots and background we learned had significant effects upon the book’s climax.

Unfortunately, it didn’t.

Most of the plots in the book were either entirely pointless, or simply long winded adjuncts to Kelsea’s story. I hoped that Jovel; who was previously manipulated into betrayal for a promise of freeing his wife from sexual slavery in Mortmesne, was heading for some redemption, or at least finding his wife. When it occurred however, the meeting with his wife was as gratuitously cruel as possible, as was the response that the other supposedly decent characters made to Jovel regarding it. Where in any other book that disastrous reunion might have been the impetus for some other action, maybe even leading to a reconciliation, character growth or at least the chance to be heroic, here, Jovel simply dropped off the map after being tormented.

Aisa; daughter of Kelsea’s Chamberlain and the Tear’s answer to Arya Stark, appeared to have a plot which was progressing, even if the idea of one twelve year old girl and four assassins alone taking out an entire child sex slave ring (no, not the one in Mortmesne, the other one), is somewhat of a stretch. Yet other than awesome knife fights, Aisa’s plot was literally cut off the moment it finally ran into Kelsea. Aisa did get to confront her abusive father it is true, however as with many villains in the series, Aisa’s father was a one dimensionally loathsome portrait of a child abuser who was so utterly pathetic, that Aisa’s repeated denouncements and humiliations of him; culminating in dragging a gagged and protesting man through dirty underground tunnels, simply felt like overkill. Indeed, while I’m absolutely in favour of confronting sexual abusers, this man was so utterly unthreatening, existing only to be repeatedly humiliated, that I was actively bored of him by his third appearance.

About the only character who felt as if they had a vaguely resolved plot was Ewen, and even here, his plot also dried up the second he’d ceased to be of use to Kelsea, and was mostly just there to show poor Ewen’s lack of street smarts being taken advantage of by a greedy publican (as if this series wasn’t already cheerful enough).

Kelsea’s visions of Katy’s story, though not half as compelling as Lily’s in the previous book, were probably the most interesting, simply for seeing how the vaunted socialist utopia founded by William Tear functioned, and how it fell apart, as well as finally providing us with some answers about the mysterious Row Finn, the power of Kelsea’s sapphires and the origins of the Tear monarchy. Unfortunately, what answers we received were less than adequate. Katy alternated between hero worshipping William Tear and his philosophy, and then abruptly switching to the ideas of her childhood friend, the handsome and charismatic Rowland Finn. Though we do eventually find a reason why Finn might have a personal grudge with William Tear, the society Katy describes is so utopian, with discourses on everyone’s specialness and contributions to the community, that the vague grumblings about some people desiring “a world where smart, hard working people get rewarded”, make little sense, since for all intents and purposes people are getting pretty well rewarded already.

Rather than answering this question or painting the situation with nuance however, Johansen simply inserts Christianity, since quite obviously, Christianity is always a sign of social decline. Indeed, I hesitate to call this “Christianity”, being as according to Erika Johansen, its central principle; other than its belief in a so called “invisible sky father”, is that some people are “saved”, or “chosen” and thus better than everyone else; quite clearly not the Christianity we have in the real world which preaches loving thy neighbour and all being equal in the sight of God, and which rarely to my knowledge causes complete social anarchy within five years of inception. Of course, this isn’t to say there aren’t nasty, insular, exclusivist Christians, however Johansen’s contrast here between good equalitarian atheism and evil narrow minded religion was so blatant as to be ridiculous, particularly in a world which also contained prophetic visions and mysterious magic powers which everyone simply accepted on trust. The series single good Christian, Father Tyler does put in a brief appearance; for all he gets shoved in a dark smelly tunnel for most of the plot until he can be of use to Kelsea, and is still portrayed as a good man, albeit I got the strong idea this was despite his faith, rather than because of it.

Katy’s perspective was also a way for us to learn what happened to Lily, whose journey out of abuse and repression we’d followed in the previous book. We get to see her happily married to William Tear, and an integral and respected part of the community, right up until the lack of medical technology has her die a truly horrific, bloody and excruciating death, tossed off in just a couple of paragraphs, just in case we were getting the idea that anyone in this world ever got a happy ending.

When Kelsea’s plot reveals that the Fetch is 300 years old like Row Finn, and that Row Finn himself has created a hoard of super strong vampire zombie children as his minions, I was even more intrigued to see how this bunch of people from late 21st century dystopic earth gained magical powers. Johansen helpfully doesn’t tell us. Other than a few vague remarks about sapphire being common in Tear, and revealing who happened to make one of Kelsea’s magical gems, we get no explanation whatsoever for either the magic, or for Row Finn and the Fetch’s long life, or for the sudden appearance of fantasy creatures in what has been up to now a comparatively realistic world. They just do.

“It just does”, are also the words that seem to be the overriding principles behind Kelsea’s plot. Both in how she mysteriously receives visions of the past, and how her plot progresses. Where the Red Queen previously had been one of the best things in the series, a truly vile villain whom we itched to see brought low, here Johansen seemed to be attempting a “sympathetic” portrayal. Unfortunately, with her usual sledgehammer subtlety “sympathetic” apparently means going from a sudden switch from utterly detestable, amoral tyrant, to doubt riddled, tragic sad sack. The Red Queen courteously declines to bother invading the Tearling because she “gave her word”, despite having nothing stopping her. When there is a plot to assassinate the Red Queen, she of course tells her guards to get the names of the conspirators “by any means necessary.” However, even though Kelsea holds the keys both to an incredible magical power, and to the defeat of Row Finn, the Red Queen not only neglects from torturing her but also sees that she’s well treated. Indeed, even when Kelsea is beaten and sexually harassed by a jailer (since in this world being sexually harassed is pretty much bog standard for all women), the Red Queen apologises and even assigns a much nicer female jailer, though of course when the old jailer wants to take his harassment further, Kelsea’s handy magic steps in to save her from anything really bad happening, despite her not having her sapphires at that point. All of this makes it quite possible for Kelsea to feel sorry for the Red Queen, who was; after all an ugly misunderstood little girl and so must be forgiven her century of tyranny and slavery; a shame Kelsea didn’t show as much compassion for Thorn whom she brutally executed in the previous book, who’d spent his childhood as a sex slave; a hypocrisy even Kelsea admits.

Since the Red Queen is now just misunderstood, it also follows that Mortmesne is on the point of collapse; partly because the army were so disappointed to miss out on all of the looting and raping (another reason why the Red Queen’s initial decision not to invade the Tearling is so incomprehensible).

The book does try to explore Kelsea’s character a little more, however this generally fails on account of Kelsea not really having many likable character traits. She’s impulsive, quick to make decisions and even has her dark side. Though Johansen at times reiterates Kelsea’s love of fiction, rarely do we see her concerned with anything besides justice, and rarely do her interactions with others involve anything more than either discussing justice, giving orders or simply conveying information. This meant that finally learning the identity of Kelsea’s father, or letting Kelsea come to terms with her feelings about her mother simply fell flat. Kelsea’s semi reconciliation with Pen, the guard she was using as a walking sex toy in the previous book despite his love for her also felt token at best, especially in her admission that though she’d be happy to have many one night stands with men in the future, they were essentially meaningless, since apparently concern for justice is incompatible with long term relationships.

Speaking of relationships, Kelsea’s treatment of Pen looks positively romantic when set against Katy, who has first a hate filled fast action fling with Row Finn; a moment where she literally alternates between telling him how much she hates him with multiple orgasms, then a similarly emotionally empty moment with Johnathan Tear, where she alternates telling him how much she loves justice between multiple orgasms. Indeed, it is odd that for all the times Johansen mentions “love”, in the text, like the love Kelsea has for her surrogate parents, there is literally no evidence of it at all, either in friendship, or especially in love between two people. Then again, since in this world most relationships are abusive anyway, I suppose meaningless physical pleasure with no emotional connection is about the best one can hope for.

Even those who have liked this series have criticised the ending, where the expected climax abruptly stops, and Kelsea solves everything with the single most extreme Deus-ex-Machina possible in fiction. The mechanism Kelsea employs might have worked if either the series justified its existence, other than it being yet more evidence of Kelsea’s convenient magic being convenient, or if it actually worked on a character level.

Unfortunately, even though Johansen tries for a somewhat bittersweet ending, this utterly fails. The bitterness is based upon character warmth and connections which simply have not existed in the rest of the series, whilst the sweetness is based on establishing a utopian society which is so at odds with everything Johansen has said about society up to now it stands out like a hippopotamus among hamsters, especially when this utopia is not really so different to William Tear’s, which we’ve already seen go amazingly, murderously wrong.

I was also wryly amused that; seemingly riding along with one of Johansen’s favourite hobby horses, though Kelsea returns to her original appearance in the ending and stops resembling Lily, she is no longer described as “plain”, but as having a “round, good natured face”, which to me sounds actually quite attractive, then again, since in Johansen land men being attracted to women is only going to lead to sexual abuse, or at best an emotionally empty one night stand, this is perhaps not such an advantage; after all the Red Queen’s sexually abusive minion; no not that one, or the other one, the tne who is Kelsea’s jailer, constantly refers to her as “pretty”.

All in all, I have to say Fate of the Tearling has been an extreme disappointment. Blatant axe grinding which crosses the line into utter miserableness, a world so grim as to be unremittingly depressing undercut by a totally unjustified and out of place ending, and characters who were either dislikeable, pointless or simply there to be tormented for no reason, as well as a meandering plot fuelled by extreme coincidence and a total lack of explanation. Far from improving upon its predecessors, the best aspects of the series, the driving pace and the sense of an actual struggle of good vs evil were actively eclipsed. Indeed, if people wish to read this series at all, I would actually recommend stopping after the end of Invasion of the Tearling, and simply assuming that everybody dies and goes to heaven, which is approximately what happens here anyway, and will save everyone a great deal of aggravation.

4/10 Queen of the vandals, the raping and the worst men

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