The Queen of the Tearling is the debut novel, and the first book in a trilogy, by American Author Erika Johansen. Johansen grew up in the San Fransisco area and achieved a MFA from the Iowa’ Writer’s workshop.
Erika Johansen is a fascinating author, with an interesting – and quite public – stance on having more ‘ugly’ heroines in book series. This is certainly reinforced in The Queen of the Tearling with constant references to how ‘plain’ and ‘ugly’ the main character is. In fact, Johansen touches upon a great many meritorious subjects during this novel. But it is for these very same reasons that I’ve come away from this novel quite disappointed.
I hate to give a bad review, especially when everything seems to point at the book actually being good. Johansen secured a seven-figure book and movie deal before the first novel even hit the shelves, the book has sold oodles of copies, and it has drawn comparisons to A Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games, both widely regarded as fantastic series.
And that’s a problem! When one sticks a label on a book like ‘This is The Hunger Games meets A Game of Thrones’ one can expect two things to happen. First, more books are sold. Second, many more people are disappointed. I can see why people would be angry about this. The Queen of the Tearling (which I’m now going to call Tearling for ease of reading) shares nothing but the slightest diaphanous link with The Hunger Games. The link being that both books have a female protagonist. This is sheer marketing barbarism at its worst, and I think it has had a truly negative impact on how many people have viewed the book. For those big fans of The Hunger Games (of which there are thousands) looking for something similar to sate their literary appetite, Tearling is going to be nothing short of a disappointment.
But enough ranting about the demons in marketing. I’m here to review a book.
Tearling is set at a strange confluence of past and future. In fact, if asked to describe what exactly the book is I would answer with: a magic-realism-medieval-fantasy-dystopian-post-apocalyptic-intrigue novel set in a future version of our world that is an awful lot like the past, but with magic. Set after some undisclosed apocalypse and renaming of the landmasses of Europe, America, and the UK, Tearling is clearly reaching for the stars. Of course, trying to do all these things at once only sees the book fall short of what it could’ve been. In truth, Tearling often feels like it doesn’t quite know what it is.
The book is similar to many other fantasy novels, there is a chosen one (‘true queen’ in this case) which is our main character, Kelsea. There is also a big, bad, powerful enemy which is seemingly insurmountable (the Red Queen and her empire). A workable model, for sure, but not particularly original or inspiring. The plot centres around political intrigue, but for the most of it, the intrigue is superficial. There are several inconsistencies that are glossed over. Kelsea, who has spent her life in hiding with only two guardians since she was a baby, suddenly – within the space of a month or so – arrives at her kingdom and instantly knows exactly what she should do, and how to make the people love her. Often a reader will suspend their disbelief for a novel, but my disbelief was kicked down a boulder-ridden mountainside and battered into submission on the way to the realisation waiting for me at the bottom.
Because the characters are not believable, nor are they consistent. A heroin addict who can somehow conceal his withdrawal symptoms while performing a high-level job. A queen who has been in isolation for her entire life, but knows how to be witty and how to see through people and know what they’re thinking. A group of shadowy assassins who’re supposed to be the most revered killers in the land… who can’t kill anyone or constantly get beat by people who’re just normal soldiers. When characters don’t live up to their descriptions, the novel loses all traction. That’s not to say that there are no redeeming characters. Yes, Lazarus the Mace is an interesting character. Yes, I want to know more about him. But no, that is not enough to save a novel like this.
When it comes to language, Johansen boasts an impressive vocabulary and manages to utilise it without coming across as ostentatious or snobby. The book is written in a pretty pleasing-to-read manner. My only qualms about the writing are the fact that it is all tell and no show. That is, the emotions of the characters are constantly told to us, rather than shown through their reaction to events around them. It does, at times, seem like Johansen hasn’t quite found her voice yet.
I would, however, like to say that it’s not all bad. Johansen is not afraid to write about tough topics like self-worth, social justice, and even things like paedophilia. The pacing of the novel is pretty well thought out. And the book follows a decent three-act structure with a good handle on the rise and fall of tension. However, these good points only soften the blow of what is a generally disappointing and difficult to get through novel.
I’m afraid I can’t recommend this book. While I’m sure that plenty of people enjoy it (just look at all the positive views on good reads) I can’t honestly say that it is a good book. If you’d like to see me be more positive in a review, check out this review so I can show you that I’m not a terrible person.
That’s it for the review, I hope you enjoyed it
Have you read any of this book/series? If you have, feel free to comment and tell me all about what you think.
Thanks for reading.