The Queen of even more darkness
While I was slightly ambivalent about Queen of the Tearling, something I absolutely cannot deny is that the book was extremely compelling, and that it left major questions to which I wanted answers. So, on that basis it isn’t too surprising that I returned to the series so quickly.
Kelsea has assumed the Tearling throne and put a stop to the regular slave shipments to Mort Mesne, but only at a terrible cost. The Mort army is on the march, and neither the small and poorly equipped Tearling army, nor even the power of Kelsea’s two magical sapphires seems likely to be able to stop them; not when set against the evil magic of Mort’s immortal Red Queen. Meanwhile, in America of 2058, Lily Mayhew finds herself trapped by an abusive marriage and an oppressive government; since even in the wealthy community of new Canaan, kept apart from the poor by its high steel walls, a woman’s life is of little value, her only purpose to bear children for her husband.
Yet, a chance encounter brings Lily into contact with the separatist group Blue Horizon, whose leader, William Tear, has an audacious dream of a better world. Facing her own emotional unrest, political conspiracy and the oncoming invasion, Kelsea finds herself beset by visions of Lily’s struggle, even finding that the face she sees in the mirror is no longer hers. But, Kelsea welcomes these visions, as she knows that the key to the future might well be found in the past, and the salvation of the Tear, as well as the riddle of her own heritage, might lie with Lily. One of the first things I noticed about Invasion of the Tearling, is that it possesses the strengths of the previous book. The writing style is quick, immediate and absorbing, though not necessarily poetic, Johansen has a gift for oppressive atmosphere, and for character based action which makes her books extremely readable. Combine this with a ratcheting tension, and the ability to create a good vs evil struggle where the big battalions are definitely on the side of the evil; both figuratively and literally, and you have something which is surprisingly hard to put down, especially since this is the book where, through Lily’s perspective, Johansen starts to answer all those many questions about how the Tearling relates to the world we know.
Another major plus in Invasion, is that Johansen seemed to tail back on making most of the world revolve around Kelsea, first by giving us the direct perspectives of some other characters; from Ewen, a good natured, if slow witted jailer, to Aisa, the severely angry daughter of Kelsea’s Chamberlain Andalie. Then, we get to explore the stories of secondary characters, explaining how Andalie ended up married to her abusive husband, and even giving some hints at Mace’s backstory. I was also pleasantly surprised when, despite the deepening corruption and sadism of The Church, Johansen not only made Father Tyler a highly sympathetic and even admirable character, but (eventually), gave him a Christian context for performing moral actions, suggesting that Kelsea’s atheistic zealotry in the previous book was primarily in character. Unfortunately, such nuances are few and far between, and Johansen’s overall tone here was if anything grimmer and more gratuitous than before, with rape, slavery and torture very much at the forefront.
Of course, neither the preparations for a brutal invasion nor extreme dystopias are cheerful settings, however Johansen seemed here to positively delight in having everything; and almost everybody, be as utterly bad as possible. This began with Kelsea. Where previously she was a principled, if rather dour and rather overly successful, protagonist, here Johansen attempted to give Kelsea a supposed dark side to grapple with. Unfortunately, with Johansen’s less than subtle approach, this meant Kelsea alternated between situations where she was able to lay down the law to one dimensionally evil people, and then suddenly be tempted into doing something extreme herself; both of which presented problems.
The Tear nobles are; of course, all greedy grasping land owners complaining at the damage caused by refugees to their crops and their prophets. Kelsea is then free to threaten them into obedience; never mind that destruction of crops should be a pretty major issue for a city about to be undergoing siege, much less any idea that nobles might perhaps need to administer their lands and support the crown. Then again, when Kelsea has a villain at her mercy and her righteous rage causes her to psychically tear him to pieces in front of a crowd, (since strangulation hanging was apparently too merciful). Rather than feeling horrified at Kelsea crossing lines, this just felt like a natural progression of her utter moral certainty and sense of invincible rightness. Speaking of Kelsea’s gems, the mysterious powers they gain felt more a function to move the plot along than anything with logical rules or consistency.
Of course, amorphous magic is no problem in a standard good vs evil fantasy, but with Kelsea here already being a less than sympathetic character (for all her intention to be on the side of justice, the gems magical powers did not have the emotional resonance that covered such an obvious plot device. Particularly, when Kelsea used the gems to take equally contradictory decisions, such as graphically and disgustingly violating one enemy’s mind, then refusing to kill them due to a misplaced act of compassion, even though at that point killing the enemy would actually serve some pretty major strategic benefit.
Kelsea’s contradictions continue with her personal affairs. Johansen has argued at length that she wishes more books had unattractive heroines, and in the previous book it was made clear that Kelsea was plain. Here however, thanks to the magical power of her gems, Kelsea starts to become pretty, (and lose weight). Just to become even more confusing, Kelsea begins a sexual relationship (a decidedly unromantic one), with one of her guards. When the guardsman revealed that he’d always found her attractive, I was hoping Johansen might indicate that there is far more to attraction than good looks (despite the massive attention paid to handsome men in the text), yet a second later, Kelsea is complaining about feeling “shallow”, because of her new pretty appearance and even wondering whether the guardsman is just wanting to sleep with her because of that.
“Sleep with”, is also about the limit of this interaction, indeed I don’t know whether it’s intended as more of Kelsea’s fall to the dark side, but the fact that she is quite knowingly simply using a man whom she knows to be in love with her as a source of sexual relief hardly makes her a likable person, anymore than it would if Kelsea were a man treating a woman who loved him as simply an easy lay, (especially a woman directly under his command).
Many reviewers have cited this book’s “political themes”, or concern with “social justice”, as a major bonus. Unfortunately, claiming this book has social themes is rather like claiming the Daleks are a commentary on racism, namely showing something bad in reality by making an insanely dark, ridiculously over the top fictional version of it, without any thoughts as to the subtlety or intricacies of that bad thing, much less any attempt to show how that bad thing may be made less bad.
So, Lily’s dystopic America is not so much a realistic extrapolation of conditions in the future, as a strong distillation of modern fears, with a divide between rich and poor, governmental control and censorship enhanced to ridiculous levels, and women’s inequality ramped up to a point which would have felt extreme even fifty years ago, with women having no rights to property, no ability to hold jobs and even contraceptives being illegal. All of this might not be an issue if we actually saw a story about the triumph of the human spirit, or some moments of gentleness despite the horror. Indeed, dystopias have provided some true instances of beauty in darkness, like the usually pragmatic Katniss caring for Rue in The Hunger Games, or Winston Smith’s unexpected revelation that an old Prole woman is beautiful and strong in 1984.
Unfortunately, rather than giving us moments of beauty, Johansen simply reinforces the darkness, often even seeming to go out of her way to make sure things get as unpleasant as possible.
It is not enough that Lily lives in such an oppressive society, but she also has to be in a violently abusive marriage to a husband who is both a powerful politician, and a sexual sadist. Even this isn’t enough, since not only does Johansen treat us to a graphic description of Lily being raped, but also have the resistance member she rescues kindly tell Lily that “it’s bad for women everywhere”, and that she was lucky there was only one rapist. Not only is this a shockingly insensitive thing to say to a person who's just been raped, but also a downright stupid thing to say to the woman whose risking torture and death to hide you in her house!
Of course, all of the other wives of rich men Lily knows are shallow and bitchy, and all of her husband's friends are crude and abusive (Lily even compares them to pigs). This might have been excusable if William Tear’s resistance were any better. Yet, not only are the resistance allied with a bunch of thugs who of course sexually harass Lily, but also on two separate occasions Lily is left behind by the resistance, once to bee beaten and yet again raped by her husband, once to be taken into custody and tortured, a situation which also leads to the death of one of the few unambiguously good people in the book, and all the vague explanation we get for this is the handsome William Tear telling Lily simply that “his people need to be tested”. Lily apparently does not object to this; though she does rather insensitively remark that giving into pain is weakness.
With the rest of the book featuring castration, burning alive and mention of yet another child sex slave ring (that really should not be a sentence), and I’ll admit that towards the end things had ceased to be shocking. Indeed, much as with the works of the late Terry Goodkind, instead of making me fear more for the characters, much less consider any kind of real world social issues, I found that the sheer amount of unrelievedly nasty stuff happening, with nothing by way of humour or warmth to lighten it, was making me actively numb.
This is a shame, since one sequence towards the end when Lily is being tortured and receiving psychic support from Kelsea was very unique, and combined the two perspectives in a truly fascinating way, as well as approaching the sort of beauty in darkness which is so lacking from the rest of the book.
Even though there was much missing from lily’s motivations (not the least being why she married such a patently nasty piece of work in the first place), I did like and empathise with Lily rather more than with Kelsea, since in Lily we have the simple story of a victim trying to escape a terrible situation, even if one that takes some fairly incomprehensible turns, while in Kelsea we have an odd mix of blatantly moral success, unexplained magic and questionable decision making. While Invasion of the Tearling was a better book than its predecessor, with at least an attempt at sympathetic characters, the same intensive action and compulsive pace as the original, and some genuinely unique revelations and mixes in perspective, at the same time it brings its own problems.
Where previously I feared Johansen might be guilty of misandry (hatred of men), in this book she seems far more guilty of misanthropy; hatred of everybody!
With mutilation, torture, inequality and rape at every turn, the book is a cavalcade of grim. What’s more, though Lily’s story shows the origin of the Tear, since all of the hope in Lily’s story is founded on the creation of Kelsea’s decidedly far from utopian world, an act which in itself unleashed an orgy of violence, the ultimate theme of the book seems to be simply that no moral aspirations work, evil always wins, and that even the possession of magical, instantly powerful jewels will only lead to ultimately bad consequences.
All that being said, there is still a lot here to like. Less overt preaching, even if the themes of the book are still less than subtle, a wider perspective, and a genuinely interesting link between past and present. What’s more, while Johansen did rather overdo herself on the violence, there are still questions I want to see answered, albeit with the nature of Kelsea’s magic jewels particularly, I am not sure if those answers will be adequate or not. It is even possible, given that Invasion is undoubtedly an improvement on the first book, that Johansen might justify all the darkness, and bring the series to a satisfying conclusion.
Review by Dark
1 positive reader review(s) in total for the The Tearling Trilogy series
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