The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
I finished reading Queen of the Tearling a few days ago but had mixed feelings so thought I’d give myself a bit of space to let my feelings simmer. It’s not entirely worked out as I still have mixed feelings which overall make me feel that I didn’t like this book as much as I wanted or expected to. It’s a good premise. It sort of feels like it’s based on a fairy tale. We have a young female secreted away to live under the guardianship of an elderly couple. Kept hidden until her nineteenth birthday when she will be returned to the Kingdom that will now be hers. It had a bit of a sleeping beauty feel – Aurora, hidden away in a cottage in the woods with her fairy god mothers away from the cruel Maleficent. Anyway, that’s about as far as the comparison goes at the moment.
We begin the story as Kelsea is being collected by the Queen’s Guard who have come to return her to the Kingdom which she will now reign and provide her with protection from would-be assassins along the way. Unfortunately Kelsea has enemies in the form of her uncle – current guardian to the throne until Kelsea came of age and none to eager to give it up, and The Red Queen, ruler of Mortmesme and an evil sorceress to boot who fears the return of this new, unknown heir believing that she may be the ‘true queen’ foretold in prophecies. I like this idea, it holds quite a lot of promise. It has a fairytale feel with evil queens and nefarious plots. It just doesn’t quite live up to that for me personally and I think the main downfalls for me were:
Pacing – this is a lengthy book. Personally I don’t find that a barrier if the story gets its hooks into me. Let’s face it, reading fantasy isn’t usually a short affair after all so you’re hoping that the narration will be compelling, intriguing and most of all the pages will turn easily. With QofT it felt a little bit of a slog in parts although, and this appears to be in direct contradiction to what I’ve just said I did feel the need to read on to discover what was going on.
World building – I just didn’t get a feel for this place. Part of me wanted to be reading with a mindset relating to ‘land of the fairytale’ and to an extent that came across with a mediaeval type world – long dresses, crowns and courts, horses as the mode of transport, swords as the weapon of choice. But, the people on this island or world have actually sailed here from our world! I think that maybe I’ve just missed something here because I just didn’t really get it. It’s a bit like everyone got together and sailed for better shores (could be there was an apocalypse of some other reason that prompted them to do so but there’s no real way of knowing at the moment). No idea why or what these new, previously undiscovered shores, are – and, more to the point, why didn’t they bring any of their previous knowledge. There are books mentioned such as Harry Potter for example. I literally cannot get my head around it – have they sailed accidentally to a magical world not previously discovered where magic is possible and where all our previous knowledge and history has just disappeared into a black hole? This brings me a little to my niggle with Kelsea’s guardians – who have been chosen to rear her fit to be a queen and yet in doing so have forbidden any knowledge of past events about the realm to which she will rule! I also don’t really understand that. I am just so puzzled as to why, for example, it would be necessary to keep Kelsea in the dark about her own mother – apart from causing intrigue and mystery for the reader in a not entirely satisfactory way? Surely you are taught history for a reason – maybe to stop it repeating itself. It might not always be successful but I think Kelsea should be set on her venture in full knowledge of what took place before her.
Characters – didn’t feel developed. It was difficult to get a feeling of like, or even dislike, for Kelsea. I just sort of felt a bit ‘meh’ about her. Perhaps this is because she’s had a terribly protected upbringing and very little experience of being in the real world and yet once she’s actually in the real world she really is a contradiction herself. One moment she’s checking out her guard and finding them all handsome – I kinda relate to that, if she’s been kept locked away a-la-Rapunzel style for the past 19 years she probably will find all the guys she meets a bit easy on the eye – it’s not like she’s really seen any other blokes after all – but, then in the next minute she’s thinking that she would never find any of them attractive because they’re all too old for her or some such. Fine, okay, – just pick a lane please. I found her demeanor and ability to command a little too easily found – personally I would have expected her to be a little more cautious and shy at the start, maybe finding her feet as she went along? And, I wish to goodness that she would stop banging on about how plain and dumpy she is. Just stop. For once we have a story where the girl isn’t the most comely thing your eye ever landed on but all she can do is moan about it – welcome to a large percentage of the population’s world! At least you’re the queen after all – you could be plain, dumpy and just one of the peasants – think about that for a moment! As a reader I find it difficult to relate to someone if they’re constantly bitching about how imperfect they are. Get over it. Not to mention it comes across as very fickle – this constant worrying about your own, and other people’s looks!
The fantasy aspect to the story – a bit weak to be honest – there’s a little bit of magic but it’s undeveloped – as is the role of the Red Sorceress who eventually comes across as not really powerful at all – which makes you wonder how she managed to vanquish so many other lands. Which leads me to the feel of the book – it comes over as YA but then there are certain scenes and turn of phrases that are definitely not YA! Personally I think it might have been better placed aimed at older YA which would have meant removing a couple of scenes – but I don’t think that would have been a bad thing as at the moment they feel a bit like they’re just dressing – you certainly wouldn’t describe this as grimdark.
So, a few criticisms here which makes me feel very bad, however, it wasn’t all negative. The book undoubtedly kept my attention – I never put it down and then hesitated to pick it back up – therefore it must have been compelling? Right? I quite liked the writer’s style – just wanted something a bit more committed and less contradictory. And, I am certainly curious to know what happens next. As to whether I’d pick up No.2, at the moment I’m not sure. I would like to see if the points I raised above have just been left fairly brief at this stage as a hook to the reader and will be developed further in the next instalment. If that’s the case it’s a risk for sure because you might have already alienated some of your audience. I’ll wait and see what the next book in the series sounds like. At the moment I would err on the side of not picking it up but I certainly wouldn’t discourage others from doing so. This could develop very favourably but for me it feels a little underdone in places. Generally, in a book this size I expect the detail to be a bit more forthcoming.
I would like to thank the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy. The above is my own opinion.