Book Reviews, Books, Fantasy

Book Review: The Queen of the Tearling

Author: Erika Johansen

Publisher: Bantam Books (UK), HarperCollins (US)

Genre/s: Fantasy, dystopia

Reading this book was like taking a masterclass in writing a strong fantasy novel. We follow Kelsea, a young woman who was raised in secret after her mother, the Queen of the Tearling, was murdered. Kelsea is destined to inherit the Tearling throne, and on her nineteenth birthday, the Queen’s Guard arrive to take her deeper into her kingdom in order seize the throne from her uncle, who has been manipulated by the twisted Red Queen, the ruler of the nearby land of Mortmesme.

One of the things that first struck me about this book (aside from the beautiful, effortless writing) was the world building. We are gradually fed information about the world; there are no info dumps to be found here, and the information we do get feels natural and not at all forced. That was one of the things that kept me hooked. I constantly wanted to know more about this magical, mythical land with a strong connection to our own world. That’s where the subtle blend of dystopia and fantasy comes in—we learn that everyone in this world was once part of our own world. An event called The Crossing changed all of that, presumably after a tragedy struck. There are a couple of references to ‘old’ technology and certain familiar procedures (cosmetic surgery, contraception, drugs), but even those felt natural given the believable world building we are exposed to throughout the novel. Even with those light references, it’s very much a traditional fantasy novel and feels very authentic.

The Queen of the Tearling is very much about Kelsea’s journey to become a strong and able queen—I really enjoyed that, as it was a refreshing change from the usual fantasy tropes. Kelsea herself is an incredible character; she’s unsure of herself at first, but she has a strong moral code and sense of justice that feeds into the rest of the story. She wants to build a better kingdom and remove the evil practices of her uncle and, in turn, the Red Queen. I think this is where the author’s background in law really shines through—Kelsea’s morals added so much depth to the story, especially as the plot itself can be quite political and also tackles issues such as fairness and doing what’s right.

Kelsea is also not your typical heroine, and I loved her. She’s not described as slender or particularly beautiful (there are references to her being thick and heavyset). This was such a refreshing change and drew even more attention to the elements of her personality that were admirable and inspiring: her intelligence, her love of books, her morals, her courage. She even shaves off her long, dark hair so she can blend in with her soldiers to rescue some townspeople. The entire book is about her journey, and I loved that it showed her developing her own voice and ideas to become a worthy queen.

The antagonists were very intriguing. The scenes featuring the Red Queen were chilling with just the right amount of gore and tension to make me shiver, and the ‘shadow creature’ that is hinted at within the narrative was incredibly creepy. The side characters were all developed well, my favourites being the Fetch and Mace, and they all brought something fresh and new to the story.

The writing itself is so vivid and descriptive; the scenes that are intended to pack a punch certainly do. One of my favourite scenes in the novel takes place in Kelsea’s library—Kelsea recommends some books to a group of children. Harry Potter and The Hobbit get a mention, which made my fantasy-loving heart very happy.

On that note, the fantasy aspects within The Queen of the Tearling (the magical crystals/gems in particular) were subtle and enjoyable; some fantasy tends to get bogged down with magic and tropes, but that wasn’t the case here. The dystopian aspects, too (including a Hunger Games-style lottery in which children are ripped away from their parents), were well done and added extra tension to an already gripping story, and really allowed Kelsea to shine as a character as she strived to put things right.

To sum up, this was a fantastic read. The theme of reshaping the world and bringing about justice and fairness really resonated with me and I can’t wait to see how the series develops. I bought books 2 and 3 in this series immediately after finishing The Queen of the Tearling, so I can’t wait to dive in.


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About Rachel Rowlands

Rachel Rowlands is a freelance editor specialising in fiction, particularly YA/children's and fantasy; she also writes herself. She's an intermediate member of The Society for Editors and Proofreaders and has a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing.
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