QUEEN OF THE TEARLING by Erika Johansen

“Fantasy” was one of my earliest favorite genres–as a kid, I devoured books by writers like Tamora Pierce, Gail Carson Levine, and Cornelia Funke. As my reading life progressed, though, I fell away a bit from the genre. When I first read this interview between one of my favorite writers, Roxane Gay, and Erika Johansen about Johansen’s Tearling trilogy, I figured I had found the series that could bring me back to the fantasy heroines of my youth while also creating a story that was as dark and complex as my adult reading habits have grown to gravitate towards. Queen of the Tearling certainly has a sharper edge than the young adult fantasy I used to (and still) adore, but it still reminded me of the feeling of staying up too late, furiously flipping pages under the covers, and it was so good to slip back into this genre.

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Queen of the Tearling opens on the day that Kelsea, the heir to the Tear throne, has come of age and is awaiting her new Queen’s Guard to escort her from the comfort of the country home she’s been hiding in to the dangers of her new life as Queen. Kelsea already has a lot of enemies; her uncle has been sitting on the throne since her mother died, and he won’t be eager to give up his power so easily. And of course, there is the uneasy peace between the Tear region and the neighboring kingdom of Mortesme, which invaded and devastated the Tear until Kelsea’s mother brokered peace years ago. Kelsea has been educated and trained for this moment her whole life, but she still worries that she won’t be able to live up to her mother’s legacy…or even stay alive long enough to make a difference. As her journey commences, though, she discovers that the kingdom she now rules over is still struggling more than she could have imagined, and it becomes clear to Kelsea that she has hard decisions to make. The changes ahead involve enormous risk, and Kelsea must decide what kind of Queen she’s going to be–and figure out how to keep herself and her people safe from the dangerous consequences they must endure.

Like most fantasy books, a big part of the appeal of The Queen of the Tearling is the richly imagined setting. Even though an emphasis on world-building is something Johansen has in common with other writers in the genre, she has created a fantasy universe that’s unlike any I’ve ever encountered. There are no dragons or trolls, but magic does seem to play an important role in the universe, tying itself strongly not only to the emotions of the characters, but to their ethical code, as well. The setting also has some clear analogs to our own history, and this is partly because of the most interesting element of it–Johansen implies that even though this world is restricted to the sorts of technology, clothing, and gender norms we often find in typical fantasy books (which exist in a generic, Medieval-inspired “long ago”), the universe of her story actually takes place many years after the collapse of our own society. References to “ancient” stories, countries, and governments that are taken from our own modern world provide a really textured version of a fantasy setting, giving this universe an undercurrent of mystery and foreboding. It’s such an interesting idea, and one that I hope is further developed as the trilogy continues.

Even without this aspect of the setting, The Queen of the Tearling uses the fantasy genre to ask some intense questions. Kelsea’s choices strike at an ongoing moral dilemma, as relevant to us as it is to her. I don’t want to give too much away, but the more Kelsea learns about what is expected of her as a ruler, the more she sees the give-and-take of the choices her mother made–and that now, she must make–to maintain peace and order. What kinds of freedom are we willing to give up for security? What (or whom) will we sacrifice for peace? Is it better to risk the devastation of war than to allow evil to happen in our home, under our watch? These are difficult questions, and Johansen maneuvers them with unflinching intelligence. In Kelsea, she has created an endlessly compelling protagonist, one who is forced to trust her instincts, follow her own moral code, and then to deal with the devastating, dangerous consequences that come with her actions. It seems a much more realistic portrait of what it would really mean to be a ruler, a job that (let’s all remind ourselves) requires so much thoughtfulness, instinct, compromise, and, yes, risk of complete, abject failure. I would certainly want someone like Kelsea–intelligent, curious, moral, willing to learn as much as she can and make difficult choices–at the helm with so much at stake.

The Queen of the Tearling is the first book in a series, and I haven’t invested in a series in a long time. I was relieved that this book ended with enough closure to feel complete, but left plenty of mysteries and questions yet to be answered. It has certainly hooked me–I plan on picking up the second book immediately. If you, like me, haven’t read much “grown up” fantasy yet, this novel has the perfect balance of imagination and gravitas that I was hoping for, and I can’t wait to continue with Kelsea on the long, hard road ahead.

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I Finally Have An eReader: Musing Off-Syllabus

Those of you who read my review of Seveneves last week got to see my brand new toy, a lovely Amazon Kindle given to me by my even lovelier partner. He surprised me with it pretty out of the blue–it’s not anywhere near my birthday, an anniversary, or anything like that. When I asked him about this, he just shrugged. “I’ve just really wanted to get you one of these for a while, because it’s pretty ridiculous that you of all people don’t have one,” he said. Now that I’ve had it for a little while, I have to agree with this assessment. What took me so long?

It’s always struck me as silly that when eReaders started becoming popular, some people acted like everyone would have to sort themselves into Team eReader or Team Paper Books. I never felt any sort of moral opposition to getting an eReader (other than perhaps an ambivalence towards Amazon, but more on that later). My holdout was the same one that kept me from getting a smart phone for a really long time: I just didn’t feel like I needed one. I had (and still have) plenty of physical books that I’ve yet to read (and this only became more true in the year I spent working at a used bookstore, a job that came with a pretty sweet employee discount). Plus, shopping at a bookstore is something that I enjoy simply as an activity, and I knew that because of this, I was always going to have a stack of unread books waiting for me. I just didn’t see the need to add eBooks to the mix. The part that I wasn’t thinking about enough is that the eReader has its own unique advantages, and that having both options available ultimately equals more reading time (which is obviously a game-changer).

I could tell you about the comfort of holding the Kindle (I now thoroughly enjoy reading books while lying on my side, propping the Kindle in the crook of my elbow) and the convenience of its portability, but you’ve probably already thought about those things. My favorite things about the Kindle are the things I hadn’t thought of. The first: it’s so easy to read while eating now! This has been an ongoing nuisance for me. I’ve never particularly minded eating alone (and with weird schedules, it’s often a necessity), but I’ve always wished I could read a book while doing so, and I’ve always found this SO HARD to do. It’s hard to hold both the book and your food, it’s hard to keep the book open while you’re also taking a bite, it’s hard to turn the pages…surely other people must struggle with this, right!? In this regard, the Kindle has honestly been a revelation for me. I just set it down on the table in front of me and use the tip of my pinkie finger to “turn” the page. My solo-meals have improved SIGNIFICANTLY. The other thing I love is being able to read anywhere. I used to get scolded by my mother for reading books on a couch in our living room that didn’t have any sources of light directly behind it: now, I can read comfortably anywhere. This combined with the meal thing has given me so many more pockets of time in my day that can be filled with a book, which seems like such a little thing, but really adds up. The other feature I love is the ability to look up new words simply by tapping on them. (My Kindle even collects every word I look up and saves it for me to review in a flashcard feature. Be still, my little nerd heart).

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Hooray for reading in the dark!

This blog post might sound like sponsored content, and for that I’m sorry. I just genuinely didn’t know what I was missing by not getting an eReader, and I wanted to share my experience with other booklovers. It’s not like it’s taking over my reading habits completely, in part because I feel ambivalent about Amazon and wouldn’t want ALL of my book shopping to be funneled through them. (I think it’s very important to support independent booksellers and publishers whenever possible). And of course, I still feel all the sentimentality and romance of physical books. I still like looking at the cover every time I pick them up, I still like the way they feel in my hand, and yes, I still like the way they smell. But the point is that the eReader doesn’t replace the physical books I still love, and it doesn’t have to. It’s just an AMAZING supplement, one that has directly and tangibly led to more reading time in my day. That was just too exciting not to share.

SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson

A bit of late-breaking news, but thanks to a surprise gift from my lovely partner, I now have a Kindle! There will probably be a post about my experience with it in the future, but first I have to tell you about this book. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson came highly recommended to me by some trusted sources, including Jaime Green, the host of my former favorite (currently on hiatus) bookish podcast The Catapult. I went into Seveneves knowing almost nothing about it other than it was a dense and lengthy science fiction novel. I figured that not having to carry around a thick book was a large part of the appeal of my new Kindle, so my reason for picking out Seveneves was mostly convenience. All of which is to say, I had no idea how much this book would astonish, captivate, and utterly destroy me.

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Seveneves opens as an unknown force collides with the moon, breaking it into seven pieces. Initially, life on Earth remains largely the same, but as scientist Dubois Harris observes two of the pieces colliding and breaking into three, a terrible reality becomes clear to him. He and other scientists calculate that these pieces will continue to collide and break off exponentially, eventually resulting in what was once the moon turning into Saturn-like rings of debris around Earth–after a period of thousands of years of rocks raining down upon the Earth’s surface, rendering it an unlivable, fiery wasteland. The novel also follows a crew of astronauts aboard a space station that has been mining an asteroid. The crew learns that they will never be returning home; instead, they must help scientists and researchers on the ground ready the space station to become bigger and better able to accommodate a small population of experts, humanity’s last hope of survival.

I don’t want to give too much else away about the plot. This book carried me through so many unexpected twists. Just when I thought I felt comfortable with what was happening, it changed. I spent a lot of time reading this book next to my partner, and he slowly became accustomed to my gasping, groaning, and biting my knuckles as I read. “Still on that end-of-the-world space book?” he’d ask. “Yes,” I’d answer, “and MORE bad things are happening!” To be certain, this book is completely devastating, in part because it is so thoroughly imagined. The world ends, and it ends in a way that feels completely tactile and inevitable to the reader. At the moment the Hard Rain (the term for the onslaught of moon debris) begins, a member of the newly formed space station community–all that’s left of humanity–looks down and reflects, “He wanted to know how big it looked to them; he wanted to know how it felt […] to know how it was to stand there on terra firma and to see it and to know it was death coming.” The enormity of this book is impossible to escape.

So, yes: this is a book in which nearly everyone on Earth dies. There were moments that actually made me sob as I was reading. But I probably wouldn’t have been able to get through this book if it were only a downer, and instead I was turning the pages (metaphorically, because Kindle) feverishly. Stephenson keeps the book from wallowing in melancholy, and I think it’s because the book is interested in so many big questions. For one thing, Stephenson clearly did a lot of homework. This is one of my first forays into what’s called “hard science fiction,” meaning science fiction that lives up to the name by focusing on technological accuracy. This book really gets into the tactile and pragmatic solutions humanity would need to carry on after a disaster of this magnitude. Stephenson presents his characters with a plethora of problems, but instead of pitying them, he puts them to work fixing those problems.

These imaginative technological questions are not the only thing Seveneves tackles, though. The book really grapples with how we understand our own humanity, interrogating concepts like race, mythology, religion, and purpose. Even as the book revels in these larger abstracts, its strongest point might be the way it treats personal relationships. As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear how seemingly simple connections between people come to have huge consequences–and without giving too much away, I don’t mean this just in a metaphorical sense. Even though I anticipated a couple of the twists as they were unfolding, I hadn’t ever considered them when their initial framework was built, and that’s because that framework–the simple ways we reach out to each other, the simple ways we impact each other–seemed so small in the face of the end of the world. In his unique storytelling, Stephenson gives so much gravity to these personal connections, and this pattern nulls the bleakness of the book’s premise, enabling it instead to thrum with a sense of meaning and purpose not in abstractions, but in tangible reality.

I have a feeling some of my friends are going to give me strange looks when I start telling them, “You NEED to read this book. It’s about the moon breaking into pieces and killing us all. It’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.” But I’m begging you to trust me. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with compelling characters, masterful plotting, some of the smartest problem-solving I’ve ever read, and a renewed sense of value in the conversations you have every day with the people you love.

Salem, Massachusetts: An Off-Syllabus Field Trip

It’s been over a month since my trip to New England, and I’m finally writing my last post about it. I’ve already written about visiting the Boston Public Library and the great bookstores I was able to check out in Maine, but those of you who read my review of The Witches may remember that one of the sites I was most excited about was Salem. Schiff’s harrowing account of the Puritan community that became gripped in witchcraft paranoia was so fascinating, and I was excited to finally see the city I had read so much about.

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The modern town of Salem was different than I had pictured. In a lot of places, it was much like a smaller version of Boston: a compact, brick-lined city with shadows of its historical roots appearing in the artwork and some of older buildings. It was dense, winding, and actually really quaint. I had researched a good place to eat beforehand (a must if you’re a vegetarian like me) and had learned that Salem is really veggie-friendly. We had lunch at a place called The Lobster Shanty, which had the perfect mix of seafood and burgers for the omnivores in my party, plus some vegan sandwiches, soups, and a delicious mac & cheese (which I really enjoyed). This part of Salem was filled with cute shops and galleries; even though it was a smaller city, it felt cosmopolitan and lively.

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The view from The Lobster Shanty (none of the things on the sign were true, to my delight).

 

Of course, I wasn’t just here to visit a nice city. I wanted to surround myself in history, have a tactile connection to the people and places I had read about. To be fair, I wasn’t visiting Salem at the right time for that. I’ve heard that the time to really enjoy the witchcraft history is, of course, in October. But I still wanted to see whatever monuments and museums I could.

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I’ll start with my only “skip.” I searched online to find a good museum that would give an overview of the trials for people I was traveling with who hadn’t read Schiff’s book. The Salem Witch Museum appeared on a lot of travel lists and is located near the visitor’s center and other sites, which is why I thought it would be a good pick. But I suppose I imagined it to be a more traditional museum, with some artifacts (or recreations), plaques of information, and maybe a little video. Instead, the bulk of the museum experience takes place in a large room with dioramas that light up as a pre-recorded narrator takes you through the story, interrupted occasionally by ominous music. It was…a little cheesey. (Anyone remember the Stars Hollow Museum from Gilmore Girls?). It wasn’t that bad, it just wasn’t what I was expecting. The narration did provide a decent overview of the events of the trials, even if it wasn’t filled with the detail and nuance that Schiff’s book provides. It’s a perfectly fine touristy spot, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to someone who already knows the history, and I would definitely say that if you visit it, don’t go with the expectations of a more traditional museum.

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The thing that I would definitely recommend is the The Salem Witch Trials Memorial. It’s simple and modest (and as such, was a bit hard to find), but that’s part of what made it so moving. It’s just a courtyard surrounded by a stone wall, and interspersed within the wall are larger stones that jut out, upon which the names of the victims are carved. It was quiet and tucked-away, but that seemed like the right kind of memorial for this history. It didn’t turn the victims of the trials into a spectacle–the trials themselves were spectacle enough. Instead, it offered a place of quiet reflection. It was strange and sad to see the names of the people I had read about, to walk around and spend a moment remembering their lives. It was a sobering but meaningful experience.

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The first victim of the trials. Some lovely person had left a flower for her.

There were plenty of other witch-themed attractions, but our day was winding down. Some of the attractions seemed to lean more towards the cheesey. I could see that kind of thing being fun at Halloween, but I wasn’t really in the mood for it on this trip. While there weren’t quite as many historical landmarks to visit as I expected, it was still a good experience to see what the city looked like: an interesting blend of tourist attractions, somber memorials, and trendy arts districts. It was hard to imagine it being the same Puritan community that had once been so consumed by fear, but Salem’s history has certainly given it a unique and memorable personality.

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