The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. ★★
On one hand, The Queen of the Tearling has an interesting premise and a promising lead. On the other hand, the world building has more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese and some sizable blind spots regarding race, culture, and religion. Basically, the author writes a medieval European fantasy (with all the problems typical of those books)… but sets it in the future.
Kelsea Raleigh, daughter of Queen Elyssa and heir to the throne of Tearling, has spent her entire life in hiding from assassins sent by her uncle. On her nineteenth birthday, she must make her way to the capital, claim the throne, put to right the myriad wrongs infecting her kingdom, and survive long enough to do so. For the kingdom of Tearling is subservient to the nearby nation of Mortmesne, ruled by the immortal Red Queen.
On the bright side, I mainly liked Kelsea. There’s some obvious logic flaws with how she was kept in the dark about what’s going on in her kingdom, but I could mostly roll my eyes and move past it. Kelsea’s determined and brave, idealistic and kind hearted. If handled correctly, she could be a protagonist such as Maia from The Goblin Emperor. However, it often felt like we were being told how wonderful Kelsea was or that the narrative was being arranged to make Kelsea look good or prevent her from making hard choices or facing the consequences of her naive idealism. Additionally, there was a lot of really weird stuff going on with Kelsea and physical appearance. The book continually points out how plain Kelsea is (most cringingly when the love interest says she’s “too plain” for him to rape), and often with a focus on Kelsea’s weight. Do we need to reiterate that thin does not equal healthy? She could have rock solid abs under her body fat, and besides muscle weighs more than fat. Geeze. Then there’s how Kelsea constantly judges other women’s appearances. The very worst is when she thinks this particular gem:
“How could a woman who looked so old still place so much importance on being attractive? She had read about this particular delusion in books many times, but it was different to see it in practice. And for all the anguish that Kelsea’s own reflection had caused her lately, she saw now that there was something far worse than being ugly: being ugly and thinking you were beautiful.”
I don’t think I need to go into explaining what’s wrong with that statement. However, it might tie into some of the other weirdness this book has regarding gender and sex. For one, The Queen of the Tearling is a fan of the “make all the villains rapists” tactic so that you know they’re evil since slave trading, corruption, and setting out to conquer the world might not be enough to tip the reader off. But leaving aside the fact that her uncle’s wandering around with a sex slave on a leash, Kelsea’s weak and decadent mother was also super promiscuous (the entire country’s taking bets on the identity of Kelsea’s father). Basically this leads to a trend where the pure and virginal heroine is contrasted to evil promiscuous women, which leads to me side eyeing the entire thing. Oh, and one of the evil promiscuous women is an Evil Albino character as well.
Going into The Queen of the Tearling, I had some vague knowledge that it took place in the future, which was true. The kingdom of Tearling was founded by British and Americans with dreams of an atheist socialist utopia that somehow ended up a feudal kingdom with a Catholic Church analog? And no, there’s no explanation of how this about face happened.
Replicating your standard medieval Europe fantasy into the future brings with it some issues. I mean, standard medieval Europe fantasy already had these issues, but when it is a completely separate world I’m mostly able to roll my eyes and accept it, which I’m not willing to do for a future setting. Basically, it feels like the author put no thought at all into extrapolating real world cultures and customs into the future. Instead she just copied and pasted an inaccurate pop culture view of medieval Europe. For instance, she seems to have almost completely overlooked race. The people of the Tearling are descended largely from Americans and… they’re all white? I tried to explain this to myself by guessing that the original socialist group was super racially biased and made up only of white hippies, but honestly it’s anyone’s guess. Oh, there is one black man in the book, which does raise some more questions. Have the descendants of the original Crossing remained racially distinct? Why? (And if so why don’t you see more of them?) Or is he from that foreign country that was implied to be mostly black? Where did the citizens of that kingdom come from anyway? Another example of this book’s logic flaws is that Mortmesne used to be “New Europe,” by which I’m guessing it was colonized by the EU or some body like it. However, their culture seems exactly the same as the American and British Tearling. And is Mortmesne culturally monolithic or do they have some remnants of their old nationalities?
And the only religious options are Christian or atheist? No other religions made the leap into the future? And no new ones have been formed? Not even medieval Europe was this cut and dried. Additionally, the thinly veiled version of the Catholic Church is two dimensional and little besides evil and oppressive. Oh, and Kelsea spouts stuff about her atheism while implying (or was it outright stating?) that everyone who believes in God is stupid. All of this makes me wonder how much Kelsea is acting as an author’s mouthpiece. Also, there’s this several paragraph digression about how homophobic the church is and how it has special teams devoted to tracking down and killing gay people. Since there are no gay people actually in the book, I’m guessing that this is foreshadowing for our straight heroine saving the gays and boosting her ally creds.
There’s more I can say, but since this rant has already gone over a thousand words, I’m going to wrap it up here. If there’s one point in The Queen of the Tearling‘s favor, it’s that I was able to read all of it. Most of its problems where things that didn’t completely jolt me out of the book but instead niggled away at me and stewed inside until it became time to write a review. While I like the idea of a fantasy novel set in the far future, The Queen of the Tearling is not a book I can recommend.