Last summer, everyone was all a-buzz about the first volume in a new fantasy series by Erika Johansen. I had every good intention to either read or listen to The Queen of the Tearling right away, but life or other books or work or something got in the way.
A few weeks ago, I received a finished copy of the paperback edition, with its pretty red cover. When I tweeted about the book, so many people in my feed told me how much they loved it, I decided to get right to it. Especially because the second book in the Tearling series is coming out in early summer.
Here are my thoughts in a bullet review.
• What happens: Nineteen-year-old Kelsea Raleigh Glynn has been raised in isolation by foster parents. All she really knows about herself is that her mother was a queen and that she is to inherit the throne some day. When that day comes, Kelsea is turned over to the Queen's Guard and is taken to New London and the castle keep. Full of book learning and high ideals, Kelsea must win over her guard and her kingdom, make changes, appease her uncle (who has served as regent), and protect her citizens. The first change she implements, however, has broad-reaching and potentially disastrous results.
• Time period, genre, and such: Although The Queen of the Tearling is billed as a fantasy, it's really a mix of alternate history, dystopian, and yes, fantasy wrapped up in a kind of coming-of-age story. I really don't know how else to describe it. The time is the twenty-fourth century, and Kelsea's country, somewhere in what was once Europe, has lost most of its technology. There are no computers, electricity, or even advanced medicine. Three hundred years earlier, the poor and disgruntled climbed into boats and left America to find a new life. Stories of life before the Crossing abound, but in the Tearling and in the neighboring country of Mortmesne, technology is once again at the level of the Dark Ages. There is, however, magic, but we don't yet know who controls it and whether it is good or evil.
• Why I love Kelsea: Hold on to your hats, Kelsea is like no other heroine of young adult fantasy, dystopian, or alternate history you've ever met. First, she is not drop-dead gorgeous. In fact, she is rather plain, knows it, and isn't overly bothered by it. Second, although she is learning to use a knife and sword, she is not a master with these weapons. Third, she is focused on the job at hand: ruling her kingdom in the best way possible. Fourth, she is curious, willing to learn, and self-confident enough to admit that she doesn't know everything. Fifth, although she definitely notices guys, there is no love story (not yet, anyway). Whenever she finds her mind turning toward a cute man, she reprimands herself, pulling her attention back to her duties. She is strong yet vulnerable and is confused and scared by the magical powers that have suddenly become available to her. She also has a bad temper, which she works hard to curb.
• Other characters: The men of the guard, the women Kelsea brings to court, and the other people who are important to the plot have definite personalities, hidden histories, and complex emotions. Very few people are flat or difficult to envision.
• Plot notes: Not for the faint of heart: there are battle scenes, knifings, arguments, betrayals, and recklessness. There are also moments of loyalty and sacrifice. Johansen doesn't lay everything out in the first book, so we have plenty more to discover, and it's not clear exactly how Kelsea is going to defeat her enemies. We get a good sense of the Tearling, often through Kelsea's eyes as she learns about New London, the Keep, and life outside the forest in which she was raised.
• Audiobook: Katherine Kellgren reads the unabridged audiobook (Harper Audio; 14 hr, 30 min) with great enthusiasm and emotion. For the first few minutes, I wasn't sure if I was going to like the narration, but Kellgren grew on me, and I loved how she enhanced the action and drama of the story. Her pacing was excellent and so were her characterizations, both male and female. If you opt for the audiobook, I do recommend giving it about a half hour. As I said, the beginning of Kellgren's performance was a bit off-putting, but I soon found myself entranced.
• Recommendation: Erika Johansen's The Queen of the Tearling breaks new ground in young adult fiction. It's refreshing to find a smart, focused female heroine who is down to earth and very human. Read this novel soon, so you're ready for the second book in the series--The Invasion of the Tearling--which comes out in June.
Published by HarperCollins / Harper Paperbacks, April 2015
Source: Review (audio, print) (see review policy)
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