Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Queen of the Tearling

I was not the first to get my hands on The Queen of the Tearling, a fantasy novel by Erika Johansen. My sister-in-law beat me to it, but both of us were pretty excited to read this advanced reader's copy. And now that we have, both of us love it. It's adult fiction, but this is the kind of story that attracted me to young adult fiction in the first place: a young, gutsy heroine (she's 19) and high-stakes danger. There are obviously elements that separate this story from young adult fiction. It's more detailed and longer than typical YA fare, and there are swear words (though sparse) and a few gruesome scenes (one character's vivid recounting of debauchery and rape, for instance) most YA fiction generally avoids. I hope that those adult elements, however, do not scare you off. They are very tactfully handled and not overused.

Kelsea is supposed to be the next queen of the Tearling when she reaches her nineteenth birthday. That day has come, and she must leave the little cottage that has been her entire world. But in the world she is to rule, there are many who would rather things remain as they are and are willing to pay big money for her head. There's the regent, her uncle, a despicable man with many vices. There's the evil Red Queen, who has the power to destroy the Tearling. And there are others hiding in the dark, waiting for an opportunity to profit in whatever way they may. Kelsea has a big job ahead of her, and it could kill her, if she doesn't die before she gets there. All alone, accompanied by a handful of old guards who are sworn to secrecy but know nothing about her, Kelsea must earn her place every step of the way.

 I assumed this story would have more romance (it was advertised on the back cover), but it really doesn't, at least not in this first installment of the series, and the main character is described as plain and mannish. The point is that this girl is different than her mother, the beautiful and shallow queen before her. Kelsea is a girl who's studied her entire life to be a good judge and moral ruler, and when faced with the chaos of her country, she tackles it head-on, despite feeling nothing like a queen. I liked that there wasn't the distraction of romance (though there are very tiny hints of what might come), and actually, Kelsea's plainness lends a certain gravity and strength to the story. We see right off the bat that she's a woman of depth, something the country desperately needs. We know she is the right person for the job, if she can manage to get it. Sometimes romance is all the entertainment value of the story, but this one doesn't need it to be interesting and keep things moving along. The mystery of Kelsea's ancestry and the secrets hidden from her, even though she's supposed to be queen, pull the reader into the story, and throughout, Kelsea and the reader must piece together the larger picture of what happened to this country's people and what she must do about it.

Now, I must talk a bit about the setting. It's highly unusual. At first glance, it appears somewhat medieval, like most fantasy worlds. Horses, no modern conveniences, castles, peasants, and magic--pretty straightforward fantasy, nothing unusual there. But actually, there are hints throughout the story about a world that existed before, a world that sounds a lot like our modern world. America is mentioned. Books exist from our time, like The Hobbit and The Bible. The details are extremely murky and pieced together, but from what I can tell, people left our world in an event called The Crossing. Whatever they brought with them was all they had to start over, completely new. There were some doctors, so some medical knowledge was saved. A few books came over, but not a way to print more. What I can't figure out is where this new world is. Is it a new part of Earth, or is it a parallel dimension? Did they cross the stars (though it seems they speak of crossing an ocean)? And what happened to the rest of Earth? And how did magic enter the equation? These questions don't need answered for the story to work, but they were always part of the backstory, just enough information given to make me curious about the rest. Essentially, the setting is medieval fantasy, taking place in a world that comes after our modern one.

One more thing bears remarking on. I'm not sure how I feel about how the book presents religion. Kelsea studies The Bible as part of her training to rule, just as one might study one book of many but also because the Arvath (a religious group with roots in Catholicism) is a corrupt power to be reckoned with. It's not presented as a true book, and though Kelsea reads it cover to cover, she doesn't believe in it. So, I thought the author had a negative inclination toward religion, but then she has a character who's devout, a priest who's not corrupt but truly believes in his faith. He's a sympathetic character, despite his beliefs. Granted, he's a great lover of books, like Kelsea is, so I think the emphasis is on the value of knowledge rather than faith. But I was pleased to see that religion wasn't thrown out as entirely evil. I don't have any hopes that it will progress beyond what it is, though.

Overall, I just loved this book for being a story about a girl going up against high odds with nothing in her favor but her strong mind and kind heart. I loved the mystery, and I grew to love numerous other multi-faceted characters along the way. That the main character is a queen and the setting is medieval doesn't hurt one bit either.

The Queen of the Tearling will be released in July of this year. Four stars.

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