Book Review: The Queen of the Tearling

The Queen of the Tearling Book Cover

I first heard about The Queen of the Tearling when I heard Emma Watson was going to play the lead role in the movie adaptation, a role she was reluctant to take at first, not wanting to sign up for another big franchise so soon after Harry Potter, but then found, when she started reading the book, that she “couldn’t put the bloody thing down.” Being both an Emma Watson fan and a young adult fantasy book fan, I went straight onto Tor.com (a truly dangerous SF & Fantasy website just because it is so chockfull of amazing, original short stories, funny and fantastic blog posts, and always causes my to-be-read list to grow in such a quick and dizzying manner that I know I must leave this site as quickly as I can before the list swells like a tsunami wave and overwhelms me in the best possible way) and read the excerpt of The Queen of the Tearling there. And knew at once that I was hooked.

I was trying to hold off, though, because I’ve been buying way too many books on my Kindle (again!) and was trying to inject some prudence into my book-buying habits. So I held off on buying The Queen of the Tearling. But lately, I’ve been hit with a particularly nasty bout of flu and not just flu, but the flu blues too. You know the symptoms, which include moping around the house, coughing and hacking and sneezing like a walking germ factory and just generally feeling extremely sorry for myself and wondering what the point of life was. At this point in time, I was in the middle of Plato at the Googleplex, but I’ve begun to find that, as much as I like the book, I can only read it in certain moods and the flu blues was definitely not one of those moods. I needed something else. So, remembering how The Queen of the Tearling‘s first chapter had spoke to me, I turned to my Kindle Store and bought me the book.

It did the trick, seeing me out between bouts of heavy flu medicine dosage and complete zoned-out hours of sleeping. And finally, after some particularly terrible days of both the flu and the flu blues, I’m happy to report that I’m feeling a whole lot better physically and also mentally. And that my TBR list is down one book but up two books as I now anxiously await Erika Johansen’s second and third instalments in the Tearling trilogy.

There is a lot to like about The Queen of the Tearling. It’s not the most original plot of all time – a princess is brought up by her foster parents in a lonely wood, away from dangers represented by the Wicked Queen Witch of a neighbouring country, and the book begins as she is about to make ready to leave the wood and take back her throne. There are also a lot of the usual character archetypes – the wicked Queen, the Ye Old Faithful Mentor/Bodyguard, the dashing rogue, etc. But come on, as they say, there are only seven original plots in the world and if The Queen of the Tearling isn’t out-of-the-world original, it certainly is immensely fun, not to mention compelling and page-turning-worthy material. I’ve enjoyed reading The Queen of Tearling heaps and heaps and heaps. All the characters, even the villainous Red Queen, are quite likeable, in their own way. And Mace! My heart dropped towards the end when it looked as if he and Kelsea might part ways… but, no, I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it. You’ll have to read to find out. I want a Mace of my own. And a Penn. But I don’t really care that much about Fetch. IMO, he’s not as nice as George Cooper in The Song of the Lioness and I’m not rooting for him as a love interest for Kelsea at all.

Kelsea herself, the would-be Queen of the Tearling, is a very likeable protagonist and readers will follow her journey to becoming a true Queen with much interest, sympathy and relish. She’s naive and optimistic and smart and realistic and capable all at the same time. She is also an incredibly relatable character and she’s decisive enough and fun enough too, with the ability to snap out crisp, biting comments every now and then that readers will love and which keeps her from being too much of a Mary Sue.

One point however: although I am, as mentioned before, an unabashed Emma Watson fan who can’t wait to see her starring as Kelsea, I have to admit, I do find myself wondering a bit at the Hollywood typecasting because the book does emphasise Kelsea as being round, dark and heavy and most definitely not having an ‘elfin face’ the way Emma Watson does. Then again, Hunger Games fans were up in arms over the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, declaring she didn’t look one bit the way Katniss would have, but now I don’t think any of us can imagine Katniss in any other way from here on. So I guess we’ll just have to wait and see!

Reading The Queen of the Tearling is also lovely in the way that it reminded me a lot of Kristin Cashore’s books, in particular, BitterBlue and Fire. I’m a huge Kristin Cashore fan so this definitely formed a large part of the Tearling’s appeal to me. There were also bits in it that had me thinking of Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness series, namely The Fetch. But The Queen of The Tearling is its own book as well. It is a lot darker and more visceral than either Cashore’s or Pierce’s writings, with occasional stark scenes of rape and murder that make no bones about who the true victims of war and invasion are, never mind the glory and the gold.

Johansen also brings some unique developments in her world-building, describing Tearling and the neighbouring Mortmense, formerly New Europe, as former would-be utopias that were founded by a group of British and American utopians after ‘The Crossing’, a history that it is hoped Johansen will explore further in her following two books. It can be a little bit jarring because Tearling seems so much like an old world fantasy place and yet we know it was founded long after modern times in America and England with characters speaking offhandedly every once in a while of things like organ transplants, electronic books and computers as technologies that have long since vanished during The Crossing, and also hinting that the Harry Potter series is amongst a collection of much-coveted rare books in the Tearling. (The latter, I think, will add a bit of trivia fun for Harry Potter and Emma Watson fans with the knowledge that, in the end, the bookworm Hermione does end up possessing J.K. Rowling’s beloved books in her library). I’m definitely interested in finding out more about Johansen’s world here – for example, what was this environmental disaster that vanquished so much of the previously known world? And, all right, the British and the Americans founded the Tearling and New Europe, but what about the rest of the world? What about Asia, Africa and South America? And where did the magic come from? And there were hints thrown out about this, but I want to find out more about just exactly how did these utopias evolve into monarchies in the end?

And finally, how gorgeous is that above cover for The Queen of the Tearling? Unfortunately, I got the other cover in my Kindle bookstore, the one of the crown that looks like a trap. Fitting, I suppose, but there’s also something fitting about the above cover, which has a sort of fairytale look about it, and really that’s what The Queen of the Tearling reminds me a lot of. A fairytale about a young princess hidden away in a wood from a malevolent queen who must now fight to take her throne back… but like all fairytales, there are hardships to endure and certain gruesome and macabre scenes as well. Like all fairytales, there are the beautiful parts and scenes of heroism and gallantry and good deeds, but like all fairytales, Johansen also wrote her book as a cautionary tale, to warn us not to repeat our mistakes of the past.

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