Deus ex machina save the queen
I have been reading and reviewing books for nigh on seven years now, and in that time I believe I have noticed a creeping trend migrating from the world of comic books, infiltrating the world of genre literature. No longer is a book written solely for the purpose of entertaining a hoped-for reader, rather, some authors view the book-stage of their stories as simply a convenient stepping stone towards the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and big-budget movie deals.
The first I heard of Erika Johansen’s ‘The Queen of the Tearling’ was news that Emma Watson (of Harry Potter fame) was championing the cause of a movie based on the novel. She will not only star as the main character in the movie, but she is taking on the responsibility as one of the producers for the film as well.
Understandably, given my love of all things Emma Watson, I wanted to know more about this book she so loved. The blurb seemed interesting enough, and while I was a little nervous of finding myself reading yet another ‘Hunger Games’/’Twilight’/’The Bone Season’, I wanted to make the decision for myself.
Sadly, I found myself working very hard to keep reading this book, and by the end I was left disappointed – as if I hadn’t actually had the opportunity to read a new book, but rather just the screenplay for an upcoming movie, with all the plot holes and two-dimensional characterisations you’d expect.
To be clear, I think that The Queen of the Tearling is going to make a terrific movie! It has everything you’d want for a teen-drama-fantasy: Nineteen year old girl is the long-hidden queen; She has no experience of the wider world, and falls inexplicably for the obviously dark and brooding criminal; She makes decisions based almost entirely from her heart, and only seems to be cross-examined well after such opinions would have been useful; She’s ‘plain’ looking, but kicks ass!
But as a book, there is much missing. Character development is relatively non-existent, and I’m left feeling as if I should have been rooting for the main character, but without any reason why. Everything felt very as-expected, with very little in the way of twists and turns to keep the reader interested beyond the next chapter. And when something couldn’t be legitimately told from the main-characters point of view, Johansen just skips to someone else for a few moments, lazily filling in information that will be needed to understand the protagonist’s later events.
Robin Hobb is the master of telling a story from only one characters point of view, without having to resort to spur-of-the-moment POV changes to fill in the story. The answer is not to avoid POV swaps, but rather to either commit to them or not – you can’t just dangle in the middle.
There are genuinely interesting plot-points at work here, but in almost every instance they are executed with a somewhat lack-lustre feel – as if hoping an actor will be able to convey the relevant emotions. The trope of the long-hidden queen is dealt with well, in a way that exceeds the written pitch. Her looks are plain, and remain so throughout the book – a genuine surprise, as I was waiting for someone to take her glasses off (ok, she doesn’t wear glasses), and toss her hair about and lo and behold!
The references to our culture are disconcerting without any context as to why Lord of the Rings or Rowling should exist in this narrative, and by the end we are no closer to understanding the veiled hints to America and Europe. Where does this story take place? What’s the history? Are the references to Earth names and places relevant?
In the end, I wouldn’t steer someone away from reading The Queen of the Tearling if the blurb catches your fancy (or, if you’re like me, you have an unresolved crush on Emma Watson), but I’m not going to go out of my way to secure copies for you either. In the end, it was a mediocre book that I’m glad to have read, and glad to have put behind me.
Joshua S Hill, 7/10
While my lady and I have extremely similar taste in reading, something which very much contributed to my lady becoming my wife, one of our differences is our tolerance for grimdark. So, while she began Queen of the Tearling and was initially captivated, she decided to break off when the book seemed to be heading for a mass slaughter. Being in the mood for something broadly fantasy, and for trying a new author, I offered to brave the slaughtering on her behalf, and see if there was indeed enough of a light at the end of the very, grim and very dark tunnel to make the journey worth taking.
All her life, 19 year old Kelsea has been prepared to take the Tearling throne. Raised alone by her guardians in a cottage in the woods away from court intrigue, she has learned of the history before the crossing, the world of America and Britain from which the Tear's ancestors came, a world of technological marvels lost to the passage of time. Yet it is the future which concerns her now, since for the past 19 years Tear has been ruled by her lecherous and ineffective uncle Thomas Raleigh, who regularly forces the people to pay a terrible tribute to the neighbouring kingdom of Mort Mesne, and its evil Red Queen.
Kelsea must earn the trust and loyalty of her Queens' guard and their Captain Lazarus the Mace, win over her people, and confront obstacles which range from a corrupt church, a popular outlaw and a guild of assassins bent on ending her life, all in an effort to not merely win the throne, but give the Kingdom what it truly needs... justice.
One thing I'm glad about is that since I had not heard of Erika Johansen before my lady mentioned this book, I was going in with very few expectations. This meant that I completely missed out on the rather overdone hype for the series, or the claims that Queen of the Tearling is "Game of Thrones meets The Hunger Games," claims which apparently have disappointed a lot of people, since it's quite honestly not much like either.
From the heir raised in exile whose chief characteristic is being a principled person, to their loyal, hard as nails eternally honourable bodyguard, to magical jewels with unpredictable (and often rather convenient), powers, I quickly realised that I was reading a very typical, almost Star Wars like high fantasy story. This essentially forms the book's major strengths, and highlights some of its major weaknesses.
The first and most major strength, and something which has garnered Queen of the Tearling so many positive reviews, is that, like the best traditional fantasy, the book is truly compelling. Johansen's writing style is quick and immediately atmospheric, pacey, without being overly terse, and while not poetic, does a great job of putting us in touch with its protagonist's feelings. Kelsea's journey, finding out about the wider world, gaining others' trust, and learning of the seemingly insurmountable evils she must overcome is just plain well told enough to grab your attention and not let go. A lot of reviewers have praised Kelsea as a protagonist, and while the idea of the naïvely moralistic hero is hardly a new one, Johansen's writing style makes Kelsea's journey both so immediate and so seemingly hopeless, that it's easy to see why many people found her appealing, particularly because on the face of it, Kelsea seems to have very little on her side other than her principles, being neither physically attractive, nor martially competent.
Unfortunately, one other way in which Kelsea resembles classic fantasy protagonists, is that the world very much revolves around her, meaning that the plot is littered with convenient contrivances. While her bodyguard Mace is able to easily take out four assassins, he's instantly knocked out afterwards so that Kelsea can have a meeting with a handsome outlaw, It's handy that when another assassin manages to make it to Kelsea, he neglects killing her instantly despite the high price on her head, just long enough to reveal that one of her guards is a traitor. A traitor furthermore, whose identity Captain Lazarus's amazing talent for sensing people's loyalty cannot determine, even though at other moments, he can quickly acquire loyal servants and main characters to add to the roster from a large crowd.
It is not only plot conveniences that aid Kelsea's rise to the throne, since despite her lack of general abilities and resources, she has a mysterious magical jewel whose powers cut in with helpful visions or magical attacks just when things look darkest, possibly a memento of her mysterious and of course unknown father.
Kelsea's journey also resembles the standard fantasy in that characterisation in the book is extremely simplistic; even shallow. Kelsea's chief defining characteristic is her desire to do the right thing, and all other characters in the world fall directly along her moral compass, being either people whose undying loyalty she earns (usually by simply possessing principles), or villains so profoundly and extremely bad that watching their defeat should be a matter of utter catharsis.
All of this would be completely fine in a bog standard "good young person saves the world from absolute evil" story, except for the book's most major and unutterable problem, that of tone. Everything, very much including Kelsea, is portrayed in the most utterly grim and serious light, with no attempts at humour, character bonding or even good feeling. Almost at the very start, the Mort Mesne invasion is described, with special emphasis placed on the slaughter and raping (lots and lots of raping), done by the Mort Mesne army. Slavery is a major theme in the book, and very especially sexual slavery, indeed literally every villain is either a slaver, a rapist or a paedophile; sometimes all three, details which Johansen describes with almost gleeful abandon. Several villains got especially lengthy perspectives and remained in the narrative far longer than I expected them to, just to show us how whiny, self-pitying and generally contemptible they were, and thus make Kelsea's constant principled judgements and conscience fuelled acts of defiance all the more appealing by contrast.
It was also not only with villains, since just as the plot relied heavily on both convenience and authorial devices (like magic gems and mysterious prophetic powers), to get Kelsea to where she was, so much of the world’s background seemed to exist to give Kelsea inequities to challenge, and for her people to adore her for challenging them.
We learn that nearly all technology (especially medical technology), has been lost since the crossing, so the society of the Tear has reduced to a medieval state. Yet, contraceptives and drugs are still available for the decadent rich, while the poor have an overpopulation problem. Likewise, despite the fact that (unlike most medieval monarchies), a female eldest child can inherit the Tearling throne, society is still rigidly divided on gender lines, with men so ignorant of so called "women's work", that they can't tell the difference between a loom and a knitting needle (a mistake I imagine no medieval man would ever have made).
There is a pseudo-Christian church, however, all we see of them is their corrupt hierarchy and general loathsomeness, giving Kelsea plenty of opportunities to belittle anyone who believes in god, despite the fact in actual medieval society, the church was frequently the source of entertainment, culture, study and even medical care. This is more problematic considering that Kelsea is quite prepared to instantly believe in, and act upon mysterious visions she receives from magical gems; even expecting others to follow her lead after such revelations on no evidence other than her word.
This is yet another reason why my lady was uncertain of continuing Queen of the Tearling, since, being a Christian herself, while she's quite happy to read literature from a secular or atheist perspective, she's not keen on literature which simply sets up straw man bad Christians for the good atheists to knock down.
In fairness to Johansen, there is one at least not evil religious man in the book, although given that he's shown little care for others or inclination to do much besides study history, he feels a token inclusion at best.
Another issue in the book which I found genuinely confusing, was that of physical beauty. Kelsea is plain, she repeatedly tells us she's plain, and even is described that way by others, she has weight issues, and is not particularly athletic. All of this would make for a nicely ordinary (indeed rather disadvantaged), protagonist, if it were handled a little more reasonably. In addition to her anti-religion speeches and moral declarations, Kelsea frequently belittles others for their appearance, seeing attractive men as "dangerous", since they might trap women into abusive marriages, belittling a so called "girls’ girl", and using the phrase "dolls and dresses", as a synonym for being weak or ineffective.
The worst of these is one occasion, when the narrative quite cruelly describes a lady of forty as old and ugly, then notes that her ugliness was made worse by her attempts to look attractive. Not only are there many desirable ladies over forty (I am married to one, thank you very much!), but also, assuming that anyone (especially women), who takes time over their appearance is vain or silly, and that such time taken will be ultimately pointless, is a judgement so unbelievably wrong I don't know where to start.
Of course, to an extent these condemnations could be seen in character and perhaps as matters more to do with Kelsea, than with opinions Johansen is expressing, since Kelsea is aware of her own less than attractive state, and that her mother, a week and ineffective ruler was consumed with vanity. Yet, the fact that Kelsea is probably the only likable character in the book, and the amount of time spent by others proclaiming her general virtuousness, as well as the dismissal of women who do take time over their appearance, makes me suspect that this, along with Kelsea's zealot atheism, is more than just an opinionated nineteen year old's jumping to conclusions.
Speaking of opinions, while for the most part I could take the over emphasis on sexual villainy as entirely in universe, particularly given that the Red Queen sees male slaves as just as disposable sources of pleasure as any of the male villains see female ones, at the same time, there were occasions when the narrative voice almost crossed the line to out and out misandry. For example, when Kelsea notes that her evil uncle's concubines would be vyed over by other lords, which supposedly said something about "the male psyche", not to mention the idea that male attractiveness is in some way "dangerous" for women.
Oddly enough, despite a genuinely compelling portrayal, and the villains and obstacles she has to overcome being so insanely evil (her uncle even has a black curly beard), I actually found Kelsea a very difficult character to like. Most of the time, when not simply being insecure she makes moral judgements, or engages rash acts of conscience fuelled defiance; which the narrative convenience usually makes come out right, however other than the fact she doesn't like injustice, I couldn't honestly say much else about who Kelsea was as a person. Johansen does tell us that Kelsea was an avid reader of fiction, however I rarely felt this. Even when she introduced several children to her library (name dropping Rowling and Tolkien along the way), this seemed just another opportunity for Kelsea to decry "women's literature", and bemoan the fact that there were no adventure books with female protagonists. Rather conveniently that in this far future world, clearly no books by Collins, Huff, Lackey, Marrillier, Jordan, Sanderson, or countless others, survived, letting Kelsea once again emphasise women's inequality, rather than just enjoying reading fiction.
Of course, rape, slavery, mistreatment of women, and general inequality are all terrible things and we can admire those who campaign against them, however if that is literally the only note a character has, that doesn't necessarily make them interesting to spend a book with.
Johansen claims that in writing Kelsea she was attempting to write a heroine "like most women", for example, one without special powers, or unusual abilities. I find myself however relieved that most women are not like Kelsea, simply because most women are rather more interesting to have a conversation with, and distinctly more fun to be around.
This indeed, is for me where Queen of the Tearling really falls down, since despite what should be the setup for a rollocking good fantasy adventure, with outnumbered good guys against unstoppable evil, million to one shot plans that just work, and an affirmation that sometimes good can conquer all, the tone is just too dour and austere to really carry this off.
Of course, a serious tone is not always a bad thing in a book, but where Hobb, Herbert, Cherryh or Le Guin can make up in subtlety or poetry for what they lack in humour or character warmth, neither Johansen's world, nor her characters are complex or subtle enough to make this work.
Yet, all of that being said, I can't deny the book was in fact gripping, I read it extremely quickly and for the most part enjoyed what I read. Though I do not particularly care for Kelsea as a protagonist, I fully intend to go on to the second in the series, to learn more of the unanswered questions of how this future world came about, and see how the Red Queen and her minions inevitably get defeated.
The unapologetic Christian bashing, occasional lapses into overly fervent moralising, the rather strange denigrating of care for appearance, and the almost devilish delight Johansen seems to take in making her villains as bad as humanly possible, going as far as literally setting pregnant women on fire, means that I have actually advised my lady to steer clear of this one, advice I'd extend to others who find such inequities a problem, or indeed those who are really looking for something on par with Game of Thrones.
On the other hand, there is still the core of a very classic fantasy in here. A fascinating world and setting with a backstory which still tantalises, a quick pace and easy action as the extremely underpowered forces of good succeed against some truly loathsome villains, so if that appeals, then feel free to give Queen of the Tearling a try.
1 positive reader review(s) for The Queen of the Tearling
1 positive reader review(s) in total for the The Tearling Trilogy series
Annelise from Canada
If you're reading this review, you should know I completely disagree with the reviews above. To me, it's a very well developed and thought out series. If you stop after the first book, you're depriving yourself of the full story. Then again, if you didn't like the first one, why should you keep reading. The purpose, after all, is to entertain, is it not? Two major points I wish to address. First, the switching of the POV. The story is primarily Kelsea's story. But not only. It is the story of a people and the questions: is it possible to have a truly utopian society? Or a society started with an idealistic leader? Can we maintain that society? Or is human nature too flawed to do so? Where does it all go wrong? Robin Hobb is masterful, I agree. But her story is told from one character's story because it is HIS story. That is not the case here. Kelsea is merely a small part in a much larger picture and the story needs the different POVs to demonstrate that. Second, the two dimensional characters. The Queen of the Tearling is not meant to be a beginning middle and end. It is a beginning. To see the development that the above author so longs for, I believe they need to read second and third books. Erika Johansen does not set out to solve problems easily. She sets out to make her characters, and by extension, the reader, work for change. Nothing that is good comes easily. Therefore, things unfold gradually in this story. You have to be patient to get the reward.
7.8/10 from 2 reviews