The Book Itself: Honestly, I liked the cover of the first installment, The Queen of the Tearling better. It was ominous, fantastical. This sequel has similar filigree around the edges of the cover, but the silhouette of the girl and the pastel landscape beyond her….it’s okay. It feels less ominous and dark, while the story is quite a bit darker than its predecessor.
My Review: With each passing day, Kelsea Glynn is growing into her new responsibilities as Queen of the Tearling. By stopping the shipments of slaves to the neighboring kingdom of Mortmesne, she crossed the Red Queen, a brutal ruler whose power derives from dark magic, who is sending her fearsome army into the Tearling to take what is hers. And nothing can stop the invasion.
But as the Mort army draws ever closer, Kelsea develops a mysterious connection to a time before the Crossing, and she finds herself relying on a strange and possibly dangerous ally: a woman named Lily, fighting for her life in a world where being female can feel like a crime. The fate of the Tearling —and that of Kelsea’s own soul—may rest with Lily and her story, but Kelsea may not have enough time to find out.
I prepared for this one. I picked up the ARC at work one day and re-read The Queen of the Tearling before I began the sequel, so I wouldn’t be lost with the character names or events leading into this one. I settled in with this book and read it in a couple of days.
The verdict? It’s doing something not a lot of dystopians or fantasies are doing, but it’s also making some shaky choices as far as character go.
The odds are stacking decidedly against Kelsea as this book opens. She saved an unauthorized shipment of slaves to Mortmesne, but the Red Queen still builds an army against her. Kelsea’s rule as queen is still predicted to be a short one. And also, for some reason, the people are pressuring her to somehow find a mate and produce a kid in the week between finding out an army is coming to destroy the city and that army actually showing up…so that’s a drag (seriously, how does anyone have time to worry about an heir and a spare when facing certain death?!)
Add to that the fact that she starts having vivid visions about a woman pre-Apocalypse (aka pre-“Crossing,” as it is called in the world the Tearling is set in), whose incredibly abusive situation has historical parallels to Kelsea’s timeline. Kelsea seems A-OK about getting these distracting visions, even holing herself up on the evening before the Mort’s projected invasion to ride one out. Ummm…hello, your kingdom is being invaded? Maybe spend some time figuring out that mess before getting in the midst of someone else’s.
But I digress. On that front, I’m a little confused as to why Johansen chose to include Lily’s storyline. And I shouldn’t be confused. Because when I reviewed the first book, I had questions about why this needed to be a dystopian. And here is the author, trying to give me a reason why the world needs to be a dystopian. But. But I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced. Lily’s story is horrific, that’s for sure (if you’re sensitive to graphic abuse scenarios, be warned that they’re abundant in this one). And she provides some nice coloring in of the background of Kelsea’s world. But it doesn’t show me why this needs to be dystopian. It becomes jarring, going from “modern day” (Lily’s world), to medieval battle (Kelsea’s). And it draws crucial focus away from Kelsea’s dire situation. A situation that I find more compelling and better outlined.
In that same thought, I’m a little uncomfortable with the way this sequel handles violence. It’s too flippant. Johansen deals with themes of self harm, domestic abuse, even rape. And it’s all done in a tone of “well, what can you do?” For many of the characters, this violence is glorified. And while Lily is made stronger from having to put up with her husband, while Kelsea is under a great deal of pressure during her rule, this violence is casual, and not dealt with well.
Then there’s the deus ex machina, as it were, of Kelsea’s sapphires. They save her from pretty much any situation. It was a little bit of an issue for me in the first book, and it gets worse in this one. It gets to where I don’t worry for Kelsea and her people because she’s got these necklaces that protect from all harm. They’re magic. And this magic is a little too all-powerful. Johansen could make it interesting: how do mere mortals handle magic that powerful? Is Kelsea tempted by that all-consuming power? Does it affect her leadership methods? But there are a few too many things in this sequel distracting from that idea to make it a good one.
So I have issues with it. It’s still a good ride. It ends on a cliffhanger and I’ll be moving on to the third when it comes out. But I still take issue with some of the characters and plot choices. Hopefully the third installment will tie up some loose ends and concentrate on well-developed characters.
My Grade: C