“Even a book can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and when that happens, you blame the hands, but you also read the book.”
The Book Itself: The cover is very old-school storybook (Kelsea, our protagonist, has a thing for Grimm’s Fairytales), and is also a good fit for the medieval feel of the setting. The material the dust jacket is made out of is the most annoying kind – it’s porous and soaks up/shows any oil on your fingertips, so anywhere you touch, it gets smudged and looks bad. Plus, peeling stickers off (like, you know, for sales at bookstores…) is a huge pain in the ass. But I digress…
On her nineteenth birthday, Princess Kelsea Raleigh Glynn, raised in exile, sets out on a perilous journey back to the castle of her birth to ascend her rightful throne. Plain and serious, a girl who loves books and learning, Kelsea bears little resemblance to her mother, the vain and frivolous Queen Elyssa. But though she may be inexperienced and sheltered, Kelsea is not defenseless: Around her neck hangs the Tearling sapphire, a jewel of immense magical power; and accompanying her is the Queen’s Guard, a cadre of brave knights led by the enigmatic and dedicated Lazarus. Kelsea will need them all to survive a cabal of enemies who will use every weapon—from crimson-caped assassins to the darkest blood magic—to prevent her from wearing the crown.
Despite her royal blood, Kelsea feels like nothing so much as an insecure girl, a child called upon to lead a people and a kingdom about which she knows almost nothing. But what she discovers in the capital will change everything, confronting her with horrors she never imagined. An act of singular daring will throw Kelsea’s kingdom into tumult, unleashing the vengeance of the tyrannical ruler of neighboring Mortmesne: the Red Queen, a sorceress possessed of the darkest magic. Now Kelsea will begin to discover whom among the servants, aristocracy, and her own guard she can trust.
But the quest to save her kingdom and meet her destiny has only just begun—a wondrous journey of self-discovery and a trial by fire that will make her a legend…if she can survive.
Review: Lots of buzz for this book, which meant that it was perhaps highly probable that I’d hate it. But it turns out I didn’t. Despite questioning some of the story origins, the book is well-written and for the most part, and compelling. It had its lags, its unnecessary allusions (mentioning “the seven books of Rowling,” really?!), but I gobbled it up. I will be reading more in the series (but sigh now I have to wait for them to be written…).
Let’s start with my problem with the book’s core conceit. I’m going to ask a question that even I didn’t think I’d ever breach about a book:
Did it really have to be dystopian?
I know, hard-hitting stuff here. I ask the tough questions.
The Queen of the Tearling begins many years after the collapse of society as we know it. There are mentions of The Crossing, the capsizing of the White Ship (a tragedy in which the world’s most accomplished doctors all died – too convenient, and to be honest, silly), a conflict between British and American sides and influences. But they are just that: mentions. Brief descriptions, explained away by the fact that Kelsea has lived in exile, and thus is unfamiliar with most of Tearling history. It’s confusing, and not enough. My understanding of the backstory of the setting is like Swiss cheese – lots of holes, no real big picture.
So it couldn’t be just a Medieval fictional setting? It feels like it’s just following the trend. Dystopian and Science Fiction might be hotter sells than fiction set in historical times. Kind of just seems like a ploy to sell books, rather than a thoughtful and necessary plot point.
Johansen also has an issue with age. Anyone over twenty-five is often described as “old.” When Kelsea first meets her guards in the opening chapter, she describes them as haggard, wrinkled, exhausted-looking…and all around thirty five or forty. Not an age I typically associate with old-ness. And the author is inconsistent with it as well. In one scene “The prisoner wasn’t old, perhaps thirty or thirty-five.” In a previous scene, an uppity society woman is “much older than she’d seemed in the dim light of the throne room, perhaps as old as forty, and her face appeared to have been pulled unnaturally taught. Cosmetic surgery?” Really? Five years is the difference between young-looking and a hag? Bad people look old, good people look young, no matter their age? It’s annoying, and untrue. It makes me wonder how young the author is – around Kelsea’s age perhaps (nineteen), and unable to accurately pinpoint the age of others? It ends up detracting from every scene in which she describes a character’s age.
All of that said, I did really enjoy it! There are a lot of names to keep track of, a lot of backtracking to explain an idea in order for the current scene to make sense. But now that this book has set up the world, the sequels can build and not delve so much into shaky history. Kelsea is compelling and flawed at the same time. In an interview with the author, I read that she will make some questionable choices as a ruler. I look forward to that, as she’s a bit of a martyr/perfect queen figure right now. The story of a kingdom in turmoil is compelling, Kelsea’s role in it ripe for story.
It’s a first novel, and the first book in a series. There’s a lot of setting up to be done: the voice of the author, the world the book is set in, the characters, the tensions, the crux of the story to carry it over three books, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I think Johansen did an admirable job. If she backs off on the age-judging and focuses on the present scenes of the story, the next books will be worth even more hype.
My Grade: B
How I Picture the Characters:
Disclaimer: I do not own these images. The belong to the Game of Thrones franchise. Did I do that right?
Lots of Game of Thrones connections here for me…The Red Queen sounds exactly like The Red Priestess (Melisandre): she’s ageless, she might be a dark-lord-worshipping heathen (there’s a super creepy scene in which our nameless Red Queen communicates with her fireplace), and she’s beautiful.
Mace, Kelsea’s trusted Head of Guard reminds me of The Hound. Gruff, stoic, huge and imposing. Which would make Kelsea Arya Stark (the daughter of a disgraced family who has to disguise herself as a boy…whereas Kelsea looks “boyish,” and “plain”).