The Queen of The Tearling
Erika Johansen
HarperCollins
*Advance Reviewer’s/Reader’s Copy (ARC)

The Queen of The Tearling. Erika Johansen. HarperCollins. Harper. July 8th 2014. Cover.

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.

I’ve never been so resistant while reading a book in the way that I was with Erika Johansen’s The Queen of The Tearling but it did end up winning me over. Why so resistant? The hype surrounding it definitely had a role to play. I was afraid I would get swept up in the excitement and end up, months later, feeling that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It’s a terrifying thing to experience as a reader because it removes me as an active participant in my relationship with the book. I’d also say the movie buzz was also a factor given that Emma Watson is set to play Kelsea, who is described as being “dark in colouring” and a full figured individual, both of which are traits opposite to the fair skinned and thin Watson. I don’t fault Watson for any of these physical attributes that she possesses of course but she isn’t right for this particular character who I see as the major reason for why the book is great at what it does. Vague, I know, but I will get into that in more detail.

I don’t read fantasy all that often. High fantasy is not in my normal wheelhouse which is odd given my self proclaimed status as a diverse reader. I’ve watched plenty of high fantasy on the screen and I’ve read some books in the genre, mostly young adult, that feel as though they still manage to employ the same tropes and beats of your typical YA novel but just placed at a different time and place. Probably one of the more puzzling or odd aspects of this book is the world itself. It’s tone is that of the medieval era which, again, not that different from traditional high fantasy novels. However, it’s weird when things like The Hobbit, contraception, or a vague reference to America are sprinkled throughout, hinting that our modern world is indeed a century into the past for this present one. This, of course, suggests something must have happened to cause such a regression in society but is, sadly, absent from the book as to what that is. This is by design since Kelsea too, doesn’t know much about  pre-Crossing history (when William Tear settled in what is now called Tearling) which, in this book, isn’t a pressing concern for readers but will hopefully be addressed in book two.

What makes this book a stand out in genre young adult fiction (and overall YA) is the construction of its female lead. Kelsea is a character that we can all rally around and who gains the reader’s respect in the same way she does with those who serve her. She doesn’t become an instant queen. She’s young, she’s passionate, and her isolation from the public during her upbringing is a pro as well as a con. She needs experience but she has training from her foster parents, Barty and Carlin, and natural leadership on her side. She’s a queen of wit, compassion, and powerful presence which are things that were sorely lacking in her mother and former queen. The real and only issue I have with the portrayal of the young queen is the one too many mentions of her plainness and chubbiness. I find it difficult to believe that being raised away from society, and by a woman like Carlin who frowned at vanity and placed intelligence above all else, would result in Kelsea mentioning her physical shortcomings internally, again and again. It’s distracting and makes no sense given the character. If it occurred a little farther into the book and more so from other people versus internal monologues, that would make more sense and a dialogue on the socialization of what beauty and femininity is could be far more interesting.

What I also enjoyed about this book was that it wasn’t shy about showing young adults the very real issues that women had to deal with in a setting such as this. Throughout, Johansen writes instances of sexual assault (or the fear of it), domestic violence, sex slavery, and prostitution. She does a beautiful job of juxtaposing Kelsea’s preoccupation with her plainness by having a character whose beauty is cited as the reason for being sold for sex. There’s also an ongoing narrative (and the whole point of the book) of women as rulers versus people (or objects) to be ruled over. Of course, women aren’t the only vulnerable population depicted or discussed in the book. There’s plenty of instances of children being referenced in relation to pedophilia and used in sacrifices. The poor is also a segment of the population that is sacrificed in the name of peace and susceptible to all of the issues I’ve mentioned above. Johansen writes a story of leadership very well and whips out concepts that have me pondering for days on how I’d like my political leaders to utilize them. Race wasn’t much of discussion since it feels as though the Tearling is predominantly white through references of the only racialized character, Lear, who was described as someone who stood out.

The non-existent romance sub-plot which seems to be a required staple in YA should be reason enough to read the book. Johanson has a jem here and a book that I strongly suggest young girls to read.

The book is available in stores now.