The Queen of the Tearling Trilogy Review

Dystopian YA fiction has been all the rage since the early 2000s, when Suzanne Collins published her terrifying glimpse of the future in The Hunger Games. Since then, many novels have imagined a future where technology rules supreme, and the common people must fight against the ruling class to earn the right to choose their own destinies. Erika Johansen’s Queen of the Tearling trilogy takes the future in a new direction, imagining not a world ruled by technology, but a world that has lost it. Combining high fantasy and science fiction, Johansen immerses her readers in a world where the past casts a shadow over the future.

Synopsis: Kelsea Raleigh was born to be a queen. Raised in secret, she’s spent her childhood and teenage years learning the history of her kingdom, The Tearling, in order to take the throne at the age of 19. When the Queen’s Guard arrives to escort her to the Keep, Kelsea realizes that in all her years of learning, the brutal reality of her inheritance has been kept hidden. Upon arriving at the Keep, Kelsea makes a fatal decision as a new queen that sets her kingdom on a precarious journey to enlightenment, provided she can keep its enemies at bay, and learn from the dangerous lessons of the past.

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Light spoilers ahead!

My thoughts: At first, Kelsea’s world seems like the type of high-fantasy medieval world that we’ve seen in dozens of novels. The Tearling is an impoverished country, ruled by a monarch, and run by the gold and swords of the country’s richest and most violent citizens. Bits of strange information trickles through that familiar story, as Kelsea mentions offhand her cherished library, containing classics from Tolkien, and alludes to American slavery. Mentions of the Crossing, an unexplained event that took place three centuries before Kelsea’s birth, also alert us to the fact that The Tearling might not be as identical to the typical high-fantasy medieval world as it seems.

Johansen is not the first author to create a mystery around the time period and history of her world, but her’s is one of the first novels I’ve read that uses a medieval fantasy world as a setting for a future dystopia. Unlike dystopias that are built off the horrors of modern technology, Johansen’s world of the Tearling and its surrounding nations derive their horror from the brutality of the historical past, where the slave trade thrives, humans die routinely from infections, and printed books are more valuable than gold. What makes Johansen’s trilogy more frightening and more thrilling than a novel set in a medieval world are her allusions to our modern world as being a dream of the past. Instead of progressing, Kelsea’s world has fallen backwards into history. From the first few pages, Johansen has the readers wondering about what could have caused this plummet from grace.

Like many fantasy series, The Queen of the Tearling trilogy features the stories of dozens of characters, but the trilogy revolves around two main plots: Kelsea’s fight to protect the Tearling against its enemies, and Kelsea’s attempts to understand the Tearling’s past. Kelsea is the heart of the trilogy. Courageous, witty, intelligent, and passionately moral, Kelsea is the type of character that makes you believe in the idea of a monarchy. Her desire to rid the Tearling of exploitation earns her many enemies, including the Red Queen of Mortmesne, and the Holy Father of the Arvath, both who profit off of the misery of Kelsea’s subjects. One of the trilogy’s greatest strengths is its realistic representation of governance. Many novels I’ve read focus on the glory and power of ruling more than the reality of ruling itself, but Johansen never strays away from portraying Kelsea’s time as the queen as anything but arduous. Her well-intentioned decisions often result in horrifying consequences, and she’s often forced to compromise with people that she finds morally repugnant. Johansen uses Kelsea to show that even a monarch as strong-willed and ethical as Kelsea cannot singlehandedly chart the course of a nation, and by doing so, shows the weaknesses inherent in strong-man governments.

Another of the novel’s strengths is its meta-textuality. Johansen weaves the past and future into every chapter by including snippets of other Tear works, with names like The Tear as a Military Nation or The Words of the Glynn Queen. These snippets, alluding vaguely to future events, gives the reader the sense that they’re reading a history of the Tearling, which further bolsters the idea that the past, present, and future are intertwined. These snippets also give the reader somewhat of a false sense of security by making us believe that Kelsea will ultimately succeed in her goals, even while knowing subconsciously that this world’s future is never set in stone.

Johansen’s world building is complex, and her timelines border on byzantine, but she never skimps on characterization. She refrains from making definitive judgments about good and evil, giving even the worst of her characters some redeeming features. While many of the main characters have magic, it’s empathy that is revealed to be their greatest gift. While this may seem maudlin, I appreciated the trilogy’s sincerity and the running theme that having care for others is the main trait that keeps a society from disintegration.

The Queen of the Tearling trilogy is not perfect, which isn’t surprising given the scope of its ambition. The second and third book, which flip between the past and the present, illuminate one of the series’ main flaws in that Johansen creates a problem that she is unable to satisfyingly solve. After reading the first novel, many readers were confused about the founding of the Tearling, with many believing that the idea of the settlers “crossing” to find a completely undiscovered and isolated New World was unrealistic. While Johansen explains this in greater detail in her second and third books, her vehicle for explaining this creates its own set of problems. By focusing on inter-dimensional time travel, and opening the door to the idea that decisions made in the future can change the past, which change the future, which change the past…it opens up a whole can of worms. Many readers found the ending of the third novel to be polarizing, as it breaks the primary rule of “self-consistency,” i.e the idea that you cannot change the past, like in fantasy series Harry Potter and Outlander. While I found the ending to be satisfying, it also left me with tons of questions and made me view the entire series in a new light. It’s the type of ending that leaves you puzzled, which is on brand for Johansen’s challenging series, but definitely isn’t for everyone.

The series’ magic system is a second flawed concept. Johansen explains in the third novel that many of the inhabitants of the Tearling were born with “gifts” after the Crossing, and because of that, characters of all sorts have different types of magic. One of the main characters is a seer, another character can absorb the pain of others like a sponge, and another character can kill people without touching them. Kelsea’s powers, which sometimes seem completely arbitrary, derive from the Tear sapphires, which she wears around her neck. Some readers voiced their frustration at how Kelsea’s sapphires give her whatever powers she seems to need in the moment in a deus ex machina fashion, and I agree with that frustration. There is no rhyme or reason to how and why Kelsea can use her sapphires, or why they give her immense power in one moment, and no power in another. Johansen vaguely explains their origins in the third novel, but mainly leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions about how the sapphires work. I don’t find this to be lazy so much as over-ambitious. In the same vein that invoking time-travel created an unsolvable problem, having Kelsea’s sapphires act as a kitchen sink of magic power necessitates creating an origin story for those sapphires that satisfies reader curiosity and allays their fears that the sapphires provide Kelsea with an easy way out. Unfortunately, Johansen doesn’t provide a good enough origin story to meet either of those requirements. In my opinion, it seems like she uses the sapphires as a crutch to solve problems for Kelsea that can’t be solved without magic. She writes Kelsea into a corner too often, which negates the excellent characterization she gave Kelsea, and makes her main character seem weaker than she is.

Despite those flaws, The Queen of the Tearling series is still a phenomenal trilogy. It’s ambitious and forces the reader to think deeply about their own world, as well as wonder how that world might lead to a darker future. The series doesn’t fall prey to some of my least favorite YA fantasy tropes, relegating romance to the sidelines, and barring emotionally tortured bad boys from making an appearance. The series’ greatest achievement is Kelsea, who is perhaps the first fictional female leader that makes me actually think of real world queens like Elizabeth or Catherine the Great. Some reviewers compared her to Katniss, but I think she outpaces her. It’s thrilling to read a fantasy series about a female ruler who is strong, just, and intelligent, and most importantly, not focused on romance. I hope this series lays the foundation for many other novels to come.

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