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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