My Month in Middlemarch

When I was an undergraduate, I signed up for an English course that was supposed to spend the entire semester examining only two novels: George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. I had already read and loved a couple of Dickens novels, but I had yet to read Eliot, and spending half a semester relishing every bit of her magnum opus sounded like just the nerd-fantasy I had envisioned when I pictured being an English major. Sadly, not enough of my fellow English majors agreed with me, and the course was cancelled when not enough people signed up. I was heartbroken enough to still think of it wistfully, and it put me off of reading Middlemarch for a while. It was as if knowing that I could have dissected it in a classroom setting made the thought of going it alone seem insurmountable.

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Upon acquiring an ereader, however, the door-stopping tome became more manageable, something I could carry in my purse and read in pieces during lunch breaks at work. With the physical limitations out of the way, I thought maybe I could do it at my own pace, the way I used to read classics pre-English classrooms. I read Books 1 and 2 in between reading other books, in little pockets of time, until suddenly, I wasn’t stringing the project together bit by bit anymore. Instead, I found myself wanting to stay in the book for longer periods of time. I found myself not wanting to break it up with other books or save it for bite-sized moments of my day. Middlemarch became a page-turner without my even realizing it, the way one typically thinks of genre fiction. And by the time I was done with the massive book, I found I wasn’t quite ready to leave the world and its characters behind–luckily, I had Rebecca Mead to ease my transition back into Books That Aren’t Middlemarch.

In case the above didn’t make it clear, I loved Middlemarch. I knew almost nothing about it going in, and that element was kind of fun, so I’m hesitant to try to condense its expansive landscape into a plot summary. Its full title is Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, and that title is both completely apt and completely misleading. Middlemarch is a novel that focuses on a fictional English town in the 1830s. It follows the lives of many characters, tracing the way their stories intersect (as the lives of small-town residents so often do). It captures the personality of such a town, the way its collective consciousness can shape into stifling expectations and esoteric codes of decorum that can seem silly when penetrated by the narrator’s sharp eye. But it’s a novel full of humor and warmth for the people inside of it, and its commentary never comes off as too caustic to be heard, too judgemental to be lived in. Middlemarch shocked me with how funny it is, and it is at its funniest when it reminds me precisely of people in my life, and of home communities I have shared with them.

And that was thing that turned the novel into a page-turner, and into one of my new favorite novels of all time. It is not merely a “study” of provincial life, but the experience of that life itself. The characters in Middlemarch feel so real that you miss them when the book is over. (In fact, they often reminded me so much of people I knew that I missed those people while I was reading the book.) Eliot’s narrator is one of the most insightful and precise I’ve ever encountered: she describes human patterns, interactions, and secret habits with such authenticity that it’s both destabilizing and completely enveloping. Eliot gets you, and she gets your friends, and she gets the weirdness of crashing through life’s uncertainties with nothing but your best intentions and your worst impulses. Reading it is a marvel, and I was so genuinely sad when the last page flickered off my screen.

That’s why I was so happy to have Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch to pick up immediately after, as a way to keep conversing with these characters, to try to stay in their world a bit longer. Mead understands what it means to love this novel: she encountered it as a teenager and has revisited it throughout life. Her own book is a mix of literary criticism of the novel, biography of Eliot, travelogue about visiting the places where Eliot lived and wrote, and memoir about the times when Middlemarch helped illuminate a piece of Mead’s life, or Mead’s life took a turn that helped her appreciate a new element of the novel. For as many modes of nonfiction writing that are present in this book, the premise is fairly simple–a favorite book can be looked at through many lenses (sometimes literally, when one travels to the places the author worked and views manuscripts in museums under gloved hands). This simple premise really resonated with me, though, and definitely makes me want to do more of my own literary-tourism and read more about the lives of my favorite authors. Just as the characters in Middlemarch are often surprisingly intertwined, you never know what sort of connection you might unearth to something that’s felt so familiar for so many years.

If you’re someone who’s intimidated by books that often get characterized as “classics,” especially those the size of bricks, I encourage you to give Middlemarch a try anyway. As you settle into the language, the storytelling, and the web of connection between the narratives, you’ll feel like you’re settling into a real place–and that might be because the book is telling you more about the real community you do live in, and the people inside of it who make up your own web.

Books & Action: THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK

The news of the bookish world in the wake of this new America has been the massive sales of Orwell’s classic 1984. And by all means, read this book if you haven’t yet: it will certainly help you understand why phrases like “alternative facts” are so dangerous, especially when uttered by spokespeople of the government. But it occurs to me that another book deserves as much attention right now. While Orwell’s prescient novel illustrates the future that could be before us, The Diary of Anne Frank gives us a voice from the past that illuminates something that has happened before, and is happening again, right now.

Right now, immigrants and refugees are being denied entrance into America on the basis of their religion. If the idea of an angry, hostile leader using religious identity as a strawman villain upon which to place a nation’s woes sounds familiar to you, it should. As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum notes, “Hitler and other Nazi propagandists were highly successful in directing the population’s anger and fear against the Jews.” This rise of anger and hatred led directly to the loss of up to 6 million Jewish lives. And for a long time, America stood on the sidelines under an ideology which included the phrase “America First.” The fact that these were literally the words invoked by Trump makes me fear his ignorance of history: it would seem, as the phrase goes, we are doomed to repeat it.

Anne Frank wrote her diary while in hiding from the Nazis. She wanted to be a writer, and she hoped the diary would be published someday. She intended to document her story, to make sure it would be told. I read The Diary of Anne Frank as an eighth grade student, and I was immediately struck by the maturity of her prose, her clarity and compassion as such a young writer. She would have grown into a voice for the ages. At the same time, I was struck by how much she sounded just like me and my friends, like any thirteen year old girl. She writes about her crushes, her hopes for the future, her fears. She wrote both to escape reality and to document it. She wrote for companionship and imagination. I identified so strongly with her.

You might be thinking to yourself, “we do not have concentration camps. We are not to that place in this country.” Before you let this line of thinking put you back into comfortable complacency, let me bring you to the reason I have been reminded of Anne Frank and her diary. If you think, “America then couldn’t have done anything for Anne Frank, and America now isn’t doing anything like what happened to her,” I have important news for you: the Franks were among the many Jewish refugees denied entrance into the United States. There were prevalent fears that Nazi spies would infiltrate under the guise of refugee status (again, this should sound familiar), but even without that, “America first” ideologies created, if not hostility, “global indifference” towards Jewish refugees.

Here’s the thing: we are not to the point of the Holocaust yet. We are still in position to act. We are still in position to save lives. And turning away immigrants and refugees from Muslim majority countries is an alarming sign that we are repeating the mistakes of the past.

So, what can you do to help? One thing is to donate money. The ACLU has accomplished the first major victory against Trump’s policies (which you can read about here), and they need support to keep doing this important work. If you can give monthly, please do. Donate here. The International Rescue Committee is another important organization working to help Syrian refugees, who are living through one of the most unimaginable crises of modern history. Learn more about the IRC and give what you can here. You can also contact your representatives to express your disapproval of this policy. Here is a spreadsheet listing the current statements (or lack thereof) made by U.S. Senators, but don’t forget your representative in the House. This action will be especially helpful if you live in a zipcode that usually votes for the sitting representative, and will carry even more weight if you are or have traditionally been a member of their party. This issue should be bipartisan: religious freedom is at the core of our foundation as a country, and even prominent Republican leaders spoke out against a Muslim ban (it is difficult not to interpret their silence and/or support now as cowardice–I am deeply disappointed). Americans of all party affiliations should be concerned by the example we are setting to the world, should be upset by the complete reversal of our identity as a global symbol of promise, security, and the hopes of a better life for all people. This is not the America I was taught about in school: then again, it may very well be the America that the Frank family encountered, the America that sealed their fate. Let us not be that America again.

If any person would have the right to feel bitter and hopeless, it would have been Anne. Instead, she wrote the following passage, and as I am certain I could not say it better, I will leave you with her voice, and hope that we can carry it with us like a flame through this darkness:

“It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”

THE RULE OF SCOUNDRELS series by Sarah MacLean

STOP. WAIT. I can already hear you. Do you know how? Because I worked in a bookstore. I worked with amazing, kindhearted, open-minded booklovers with myriad interests. As a cohort, we had at least every conceivable bookish interest represented. Almost. For although we didn’t mock genres or readers, there was certainly one section that none of us could seem to speak to from much personal reading experience–and if any of my coworkers were romance fans, they kept quiet about it. And I think this is, in part, because even if there isn’t derision and mocking, there is a sort of unfortunate shame attached to the romance genre in the bookish world. This ideology is so persistent, I’m even a little nervous about posting this entry at all.

A BRIEF RANT TO RID YOU OF YOUR IMPLICIT SEXIST NOTIONS:

If you are the type of reader who finds yourself agreeing with Jonathan Franzen about the state of literary culture a lot (which, to each their own, I suppose), I will probably not change your mind with this post. But if you are someone who doesn’t mind the occasional popcorn-y page-turner in the form of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thriller, children’s literature, etc., then I have something very important to tell you. *Leans in, whispers* The only difference with romance is that it’s traditionally liked by mostly women, which means society has deemed it unworthy of our time and attention. *Leans back out*

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And before you think I’m scolding you, let me assure you that the reason I feel this needs to be stated is that I didn’t realize it, either. Frequent readers of this blog will know that I have been actively trying to emerge from a literary-snobbishness that eschewed most genre fiction (started, as it were, when a high school teacher gave me a Franzen novel). And don’t get me wrong: I still love literary fiction that forces me to confront hard truths (books that many might call depressing). I still love slim experimental novels that barely fit into any genre at all, much less conform to narrative conventions. I still laugh at jokes written by Victorian authors (this is a preview of a future blog post, but you guys, George Eliot is freaking hilarious). These tastes don’t have to be mutually separate from–for lack of a better definition–occasionally reading something with a happy ending. But I was skeptical, I really was. Of all the genres I’ve sampled, slowly and with joy, romance was the very last. I honestly didn’t know what I could find there. But while working at the bookstore, I was always nervous that someone would ask me for a recommendation from that section and I would have nothing to offer them.

That’s part of why I consumed book recommendation podcasts like Book Riot’s GET BOOKED, where host Amanda Nelson talked frequently about her entrance into the romance genre. Like me, she had been skeptical. But also like me, she had spent periods of her life (not to suddenly get too personal and be a downer, but) deeply sad. The years after graduating college have had some really hard moments, both on a personal level and, of course, globally, politically, socially. It hasn’t always been easy to find joy. So when I finally got a kindle, I thought, okay. I searched for the author most recommended by the Book Riot crew for romance newbies, and with the last couple of bucks in my Amazon gift card, I downloaded the first book in Sarah MacLean’s The Rule of Scoundrels series. And when I was finished, I downloaded the next one. I didn’t read them exclusively, but I always kept the next one on hand for when I needed a moment away from the world. Just a moment, just in bursts, but it was enough to stay a part of things. It was enough to be able to come back to other books–to other parts of life–and face what was there.

It’s a bit of a shame that I feel the need to offer this, but if you want credentials, here are some. Sarah MacLean is a graduate of Smith College and Harvard. As I was reading the first novel, I kept track of words that had appeared in my GRE vocab review flash cards, and I lost count. I’m sure that there are poorly written books in the romance genre, as in every genre, but Sarah MacLean’s books were not poorly written at all. I admit, I went into the genre with lowered expectations for the quality of prose I would encounter, and I felt a little sheepish and ashamed by the quality of prose in front of me, how much better it was than I was expecting. If you haven’t tried romance because you don’t think you could handle the clichéd, hackneyed writing, I can assuage you of that concern in this series at least. I can also assuage you of another concern I had, which was that these stories would rely on outdated gender stereotypes. MacLean’s heroines are not blank slates for the reader to step into, nor are they carbon-copy princesses to be adored. They are funny and smart; they have ambitions and desires completely unrelated to men. They just also fall in love.

Does all of that mean these books were gritty and realistic? Of course not. They were light and fun. Characters bantered much too witty for real life. Public declarations of love were much more lavish than would be fair to expect from any real person. Things seemed like they were going to go badly for everyone we liked, but then they suddenly went perfectly for everyone we liked instead (in fact, the “happily ever after” ending is such a staple of the romance genre that it is shorthanded as HEA in discussion, and to many readers, a novel doesn’t count as a true “romance novel” if it doesn’t include said HEA–a point that might sound familiar to you if you’re a fan of the CW drama Jane the Virgin). And yes, there were scenes for which the oft-blurbed word “steamy” would definitely apply. Like, good lord.

And, maybe the above isn’t your thing. That’s cool. I didn’t think it was my thing either (turns out, when done well, it is). But I really liked these books. I can definitely see reading more Sarah MacLean in the future, as well as perhaps some of the writers she recommends, when my anxiety is becoming debilitating. And that’s just it: as paradoxical as it sounds, escapist fiction has been keeping me moored to the real world in these past months, enabling me to make phone calls and donations and stay present and vigilant. I’m not recommending anyone bury their heads in the sand, but if you need a reprieve in order to get back out there and do good work, and would like for that reprieve to include a sweet and smart happily-ever-after, I offer you Sarah MacLean. Don’t be ashamed of girl stuff.

BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman

I’m back!! A lot has happened in my life. A lot has happened in the world. Storytelling in all of its forms is important; paying attention to what is happening is essential. But I *think* I am correct in saying that, if you are becoming paralyzed in the struggle, it’s okay to spend a little time hiding in a book. So often, the word “escapist” is used as a term of derision among readers. While I certainly think books should challenge us, should expand our viewpoint, should exercise our thinking, make us smarter and more thoughtful and more engaged, I also don’t think we should discount the ability of books to transport us, to envelope us completely in a world that isn’t our own. I also don’t think books fit neatly into binary categories of, say, “escapist” and “paradigm-confronting.” I think many books–the best books, probably–do some or all of these things at once.

So, having established that I don’t use “escapist” as a bad word, let me tell you this: I don’t remember the last time I started a book and was compelled to finish it before the day was over. It has been a LONG time. But I escaped into Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, consuming it in one fitful, feverish day, carrying around my little eBook from room to room. I was spending a lazy day at my boyfriend’s place, and he kept laughing at me as I actually gasped, or sat up, or muttered “no, no, no” under my breath during particularly tense scenes, until eventually he had to experience it for himself. He downloaded it that night, and he was finished with it by the next afternoon.

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Bird Box is a horror novel that takes place after an inexplicable catastrophe dominates, and destroys, our world. Early reports come in of people suddenly struck with a violent frenzy, killing themselves and sometimes others. It spreads quickly, and what early skeptics dismiss as a hoax quickly becomes looming, terrifying reality. The unifying link, first whispered in rumors before becoming incredulous news reports, is that everyone who acts out does so after they’ve seen…something. No one knows what it is, because once you learn, of course, the secret dies with you, but as the death toll rises, one idea takes hold until it has become the new reality: there are creatures, outside. Creatures that are growing in number. Creatures that don’t seem to hurt you unless you look at them. For the story’s protagonist Mallory, trying to protect her two children, this means years in a boarded-up house. Years of walking blindfolded to the well for water, teaching her children how to hear well enough to move through the world without sight, training them to awaken without opening their eyes. But now, Mallory knows the time has come to try to give them more than this. She and her children must make a journey out into the wilderness, amidst the creatures. Mallory has no idea what they’ll encounter out there; she can only hope that they can fight, resist, and survive what they can’t see.

My favorite horror movies have always been ones based not in gore and shock, but in deep, unsettling suspense. I am pleased when I don’t see the monster for a long time, when I have to fill in the blanks with my own mounting horror. This book has taken that concept to its most logical extreme, and I completely loved it. In this aim, Malerman has created a novel that strikes me almost as an extension of the American gothic tradition. The horror of gothic novels is rooted in the unknown. In Europe, this came in the form of the crumbling ruins and dark passages of castles long abandoned, mysterious to those that encountered their remains. In America, there were no abandoned castles: the unknown waited in the woods. Today, as the wilderness rapidly shrinks and it seems impossible to imagine a stretch of land too large that doesn’t contain a gas station, the “unknown” is shrinking along with it. In this novel, Malerman has returned it to us, robbing us of the certainty of surveillance: the idea that nothing is out of reach of our cell phone cameras, that nothing bad could happen under our watch…a certainty that, it would seem, could use some destabilizing.

Above all, though, Bird Box is a great, frightening story, with a strong protagonist in Mallory. The theme and tone of this book actually remind me of the film The Babadook, particularly in the ways that the emotional horror of the events are given as much weight as the literal horror (not that there isn’t plenty of that, in both stories). Mallory is a bit like the mother character in that film, as well, struggling through her own horror in the aim of protecting her childhood, wondering whether her motherhood can shield them all or has actually become its own monstrous presence in their lives. She is fiercely compelling, and you want her to make it to the end, no matter how impossible it seems.

This book terrified me, enraptured me, enthralled me. I haven’t read that many horror novels, but somehow, it was exactly the kind of story I needed to be pulled into. As I was sitting straight up and gasping, I was outside of myself. The book left me plenty to ponder afterwards, but in the moment, I was experiencing something more visceral. Something heart-pounding. And I think I needed that, too.

Stay brave out there, friends. And ignore the tagline; keep your eyes open.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

People of all parties, ages, races, and backgrounds are scared and upset. I know because I’ve been to meetings with them. This not a matter of differing parties or losing teams. People who are not usually on my political team–like the Columbus Dispatch and Governor John Kasich–also recognized the clear danger of a Trump presidency. I don’t know what to do, and I spent a lot of today desperately trying to think of tangible things we can do. This is what I’ve got so far; I welcome any and all ideas.

1. Make your voice heard

Donate to or volunteer for organizations that are going to be doing the essential work in the coming four years. Speak up and intervene if you see someone being harassed. Attend rallies and protests. Stand up against racism. Volunteer in your community. Make sure everyone you know is registered and ready to vote in the midterms (if Congress is going to help Trump enact policies that are a threat to fellow Americans, we can take Congress away from him in two years), and canvas/phone bank when that time comes. In the meantime, be an active presence in your representatives’ inboxes.

2. Be ethical consumers

It will be so important to do everything we can to bolster diversity. Search for directories of black-owned or immigrant-owned businesses in your city to support, or patronize restaurants and bars that are specifically LGBT-friendly. Buy new books by writers of color. Buy movie tickets for films with diverse casts (Moana is still coming out this month). Buy official merchandise from the feminist, LGBT-positive kid’s show you love. I know not everyone will be able to do these things all the time, but every little bit will help.

5. Save the Earth

Try to donate to organizations that are going to keep fighting (you can find some in the link from the first bullet point), but also keep doing the little things. Cut down on your beef intake as much as you can–it’s a simple thing that will make a big impact. Keep recycling and turning off lights behind you. Read the books.

6. Keep making art

Now more than ever, stories matter. Truth matters. Community matters.

WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS by Terry Tempest Williams

When I was visiting Longfellow Books in Portland, I had missed a visit from Terry Tempest Williams by a week. I was disappointed, because I had heard nothing but good things about Williams’ nonfiction writing style, her ability to capture nature and scholarship in meditative, poetic essays. She’s been on my to-read list for a long time, and it would have been cool to hear her talk about her new book, The Hour of Land, described as “a literary celebration of our national parks.” But the good news is that she had left other books behind, and one of them was the book I had heard hailed as a beautiful, indefinable, innovative work, a staple of what we currently understand as “creative nonfiction.” And indeed, I’m not even sure if I’ll be able to adequately review When Women Were Birds. I suspect it’s going to take me several readings over the course of my life to feel like I can fully see all of the complexities and nuance of this book, to reduce it to its parts and explain how it functions. In the meantime, bear with me, because this book was so good.

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When Women Were Birds opens with the death of Williams’ mother. Before she died, she told Williams about a collection of journals she was passing on to Williams, but warned not to look at them until after she had passed. Upon her mother’s death, Williams turns to the journals, expecting to find her mother’s memories, intimate thoughts, and a narrative of her life. But that isn’t what happens–instead, the journals are completely blank, every single one. This revelation shocks Williams, and the entire book is her attempt to grapple with what the blank journals mean. It becomes a meditation on what it means to have a voice, specifically as a woman, and how that voice is shaped, oppressed, and harnessed throughout one’s life. In this examination emerges a memoir, both of Williams and her mother, strung together of reflections and moments that don’t follow a linear path, but rather bubble up like natural thought–the book itself reads like a journal.

And honestly, that’s pretty much all I can say about this book. Even writing a “plot summary” was a struggle. This book is a tangle of layers, themes, and experiences. It’s threaded with moments from Williams’ life that were completely familiar to me as a woman, as well as moments from her Mormon upbringing that were completely new to me. Williams dips into mythology and folklore, making pieces of this book read like literary criticism. She also writes about the natural world and the environmental politics that have become her life’s passion. This variety feels authentic to the concept of voice, which in this book becomes a metonymy for agency, personality, passions, and, sometimes, literal words, both written and spoken. Williams writes about how her voice was shaped as well as what it wants to say (or keep silent), and all of it takes place in conversation with her mother’s voice, which speaks even through the blank pages of the journals.

In the spirit of this book, I have written this review in a similar fashion, attempting to cobble together my thoughts and memories of it as they come. I read this book over the course of two days, and it was more of an experiential process than any book I’ve read in a long time. I feel a bit incoherent trying to capture that experience; I encourage you to simply try it out for yourself.

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.