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Beach-reading time is over, at least in the Northeast. Not quite wood-stove-reading time, but close. This one will work for either--be prepared to dive in, never to surface until the last page.
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The Queen of the Tearling
By Erika Johansen
Like many fantasy readers, I’m jonesing big time for the next book in Megan Whelan Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series. While I wait (forever? ohpleaseno), I keep looking for another series that will satisfy me without taking every scrap of my free time like the Game of Thrones books.
THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING comes tantalizingly close. Debut author Erika Johansen starts her trilogy with a fascinating premise and pretty good world-building, an interesting conflict, and a fun cast of characters. Both the world and the characters so far lack the rich complexity of Whelan’s, but, hey, we’re in no position to quibble.
The setting is Earth, far in the future. The world we know suffered some kind of apocalypse followed by The Crossing, a shadowy event that sent cataclysm survivors sailing over an unnamed sea to a new world. This world—regressed to medieval technology and forms of government—is divided into four nations, the primary ones for us being The Tearling (which includes cities called New London and Lewiston) and Mortmesne, which is ruled by a powerful witch known as the Red Queen.
Our heroine is Kelsea, daughter and heir of the dead Queen of the Tearling. When we meet her, she has achieved adulthood at 19 and is being collected from the hiding place where she’s spent her formative years. Her loving guardians have raised her to rule and made sure she’s schooled in everything a queen needs to know, but it’s all book learning.
On the harrowing ride from cottage to capital city, she begins learning how to lead for real. By the time she reaches her throne room, she’s gained the loyalty of her Queen’s Guard and made the acquaintance of an entrancing outlaw. She also has made a grandiose but heartfelt gesture to end the monthly shipment of Tearling citizens to Mortmesne for slavery, one legacy of her mother’s reign. For the rest of the book, she’ll struggle to hang on to those gains under the shadow of impending war with the Red Queen’s overwhelming force.
Kelsea’s rise to leadership evolves nicely—she has heart, courage, and brains, and her education has capitalized on all three, so it’s satisfying to watch her synchronize the gears. I do wish I knew her better—the point of view shifts from hers to those of her enemies, which is interesting, but always in third person and always slightly distant.
Also, there’s a deus ex machina: First one, then two sapphire pendants Kelsea has inherited. When the going gets tough, they glow and radiate warmth, apparently offering direction to their young queen. When the going gets outright dangerous, a sapphire can take over to blow an attacker across the room.
The sapphires are an intriguing mystery, and I’m eager to find out what’s going on with them. But in terms of character development—at least in this first book—they’re disappointing. Lyra, heroine of Phillip Pullman’s epic His Dark Materials trilogy, also has a mystical and helpful gizmo, the alethiometer. But she has to learn to use it—it doesn’t just step in and save the day. In a later book, I’m hoping Kelsea, too, will be called upon to live up to her accessories.
I keep comparing this first book to DUNE, Frank Herbert’s beloved space saga. Like Kelsea, Paul Atreides has been trained to lead but has to struggle at a young age to apply his learning to real situations. He also has mystical underpinnings that sometimes seem to take control—although they’re internal, not housed in a glowing gem. One of his victories at the end of the book is learning to be the boss, directing the mystical powers rather than just letting them do their own thing. I trust that victory awaits Kelsea, too.
There’s yet another character problem, although this may be the result of my own prejudices. Much is made of the fact that Kelsea is “plain,” a big disappointment to herself and those who remember her beautiful mother. The message over the course of the book is, “Hey, looks aren't everything.” True enough, but that trope seems old-hat to me—I thought we’d moved beyond it.
Despite the problems, I gobbled up this book and am eager for the next installment in the trilogy. The premise is so very, very compelling, the many mysteries so very, very tantalizing—I’m willing to trust that Kelsea will grow on me as a character.
And, girl, get control of those blue rocks.
(Dear FCC: I got this book for my birthday, because my man knows how to keep me quiet.)