“Carlin often said that history was everything, for it was in man’s nature to make the same mistakes over and over. She would look hard at Kelsea when she said so, her white eyebrows folding down, preparing to disapprove. Carlin was fair, but she was also hard. If Kelsea completed all of her school work by dinnertime, her reward was to be allowed to pick a book from the library and stay up reading until she had finished. Stories moved Kelsea most, stories of things that never were, stories that transported her beyond the changeless world of the cottage.”
The Tearling was intended to be a socialist utopia, founded after an apocalypse that left humanity with only remnants of the age of science. But in the centuries since, the dream has fallen apart, and this New World is reminiscent mostly of Europe’s feudal Dark Age. The heir to this beleaguered kingdom is Kelsea Raleigh Glynn, who has been raised in hiding since the death of her mother, Queen Elyssa. On Kelsea’s nineteenth birthday, the remaining members of her mother’s Queen’s Guard arrives at her hidden forest home to fulfill their oaths to her mother by escorting Kelsea to New London to assume the throne. There she finds a kingdom in disrepair after years of profligate rule under her Uncle’s Regency, but also the consequences of her mother’s final years on the throne. Stunned by the horrific injustice that has plagued her kingdom for decades, Kelsea’s first brave but impulsive act as Queen sets Tearling on the road to war with the powerful neighbouring nation of Mortmesne and its sinister Red Queen.
Erika Johansen’s fantasy debut is the gripping tale of a young Queen fighting for her throne against impossible odds. The political machinations are not especially sophisticated, but it is fascinating to watch Kelsea slowly win over new allies. Her isolated upbringing has turned her into something of an idealist, but she comes up short in terms of practical knowledge of how to execute her policies, so it is a constant battle to earn the trust and respect of the people she needs to help her retain her throne. Her youth and her gender both make her task more difficult, but so does the fact that her mother and uncle were incompetent rulers. Her insecurity about her plain looks is a little bit grating, but hopefully it will transform into self-confidence as she grows into her crown.
In terms of genre, The Queen of the Tearling is a curious blend of fantasy and dystopian, with the story set in a post-apocalyptic world, which seems to have caused much confusion amongst readers. The Tearling was founded as a utopian, technophobic society that allowed only medical science. However, even much of the medical knowledge was lost in the Crossing, so while the story acknowledges our world, history, and ideas, in practice, the Crossing cut the people of the Tearling off from most advancements, returning them to the medieval society that is a hallmark of fantasy. There is magic in the world of the Tearling, from the Sight to weather magic, to enchanted objects, but it is impossible to know if it is really magic, or merely some form of science that the Tearling have not lost, but no longer understand. Johansen plays her hand close to the vest, and there is much to be revealed in the coming sequels that may leave readers of the initial installment frustrated.
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