Kelsea Glynn is the sole heir to the throne of Tearling but has been raised in secret by foster parents after her mother – Queen Elyssa, as vain as she was stupid – was murdered for ruining her kingdom. For 18 years, the Tearling has been ruled by Kelsea’s uncle in the role of Regent however he is but the debauched puppet of the Red Queen, the sorceress-tyrant of neighbouring realm of Mortmesme. On Kelsea’s 19th birthday, the tattered remnants of her mother’s guard – each pledged to defend the queen to the death – arrive to bring this most un-regal young woman out of hiding…
This book is hard to review because I simultaneously liked and didn’t like it. That’s probably the reason the review turned out so long, so skip to the ending if you just want to see the conclusion and my rating. The Queen of the Tearling was entertaining, fun and my kind of book while having so many issues I need more than one hand to count them. Let’s start with the flaws and then let me tell you why you should read it anyway.
Setting: This is the thing most people will have an issue with, so let’s adress it first. I found myself fundamentally confused in the beginning of the book before I read a review that mentioned The Queen of the Tearling is actually a dystopia rather than a regular fantasy. This is something readers should notice right away, not when they’re already halfways through. However, the approach this book takes is a little… let’s call it unique. Everyone behaves as though they are in the middle ages, but there is a lot of ominous talk about the “Crossing” and names like “New Europe” and “New London” are dropped. This is elaborated on a little later in the book, but there is no explanation as to why humanity crossed over and, most importantly, WHERE TO.
This really bugged me because it doesn’t seem like they’re on another planet (they crossed over in ships), but there’s no frickin’ place for them to set sails to in our world. Unless all of Asia was destroyed by a plague that somehow spared the rest of the world (unlikely), or some new continent was built by an advanced technological worldwide union (wow, I should totally start writing a dystopia …not) or, or, or… The point is we just don’t know. It doesn’t seem like this is stellar storytelling, revealing everything just when we need to know it, but rather very lazy worldbuilding. For example, Kelsea’s kingdom doesn’t have a medical system or enough doctors because all the doctors were on one ship in the Crossing – because somehow this made sense – and naturally that ship sank. Yeah right. The moment that was probably most jarring for me, was when Kelsea recommended Harry Potter to a child. Say, what?
Pacing: I think this will be the second biggest problem most people will have with this book. I don’t usually mind slower paced books (I loved Dan Wells’s Partials series for example.), but even I thought that the first part was disproportionally long. This does get better later in the book, but there are still moments when things slow down, particularly as we suddenly get to see things through a minor characters’ POV. These sections aren’t exactly unnecessary as they at least sometimes contain relevant information, but they weren’t my favorite parts either. Then again, this might be because multiple POVs just aren’t my thing.
Body Shaming: I cannot count the times Kelsea has been called “plain” by either herself or someone else. It sticks out because the author always uses the same word, no matter which character is talking, but it points to a larger issue this book has: people who care about their appearance are perceived as shallow and even stupid, however Kelsea is criticized for and has body issues because she doesn’t seem to conform to the beauty standard. Of course this reflects our society, but still. If this had been used for character development I wouldn’t mind at all. I would have loved to see Kelsea grow more accepting of her own body as well as those of others, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. Her mother was characterized as caring only about beauty, but being too stupid to run her kingdom; Kelsea makes fun of a noblewoman in front of her entire guard, which was supposed to be comic but really just made me feel uncomfortable; Kelsea’s foster mum didn’t speak to her for a whole week because she played dress up; and a guard tells her she has to lose weight. Some of this I can ascribe to (sadly) common insecurity and the fact it is based on our culture where (sadly) being fat is often considered the worst thing that can happen to somebody, but the whole book had a judgemental vibe to it that I didn’t particularaly like at all. I also frequently felt like the author was trying to tell me who to like and who not rather than letting me decide for myself and that’s always something I hate in a book.
I could go on about the weird love interest (who, surprise surprise, also tells her she’s plain), the volatile competence of her royal guard and the inconsistent magic rules, but let’s not forget I actually liked this book too.
When I went to the bookstore the day I bought The Queen of the Tearling, I quickly proceeded to the Young Adults section as I often do. But, picking up book after book after book, I realized I was severely underwhelmed by the choice of reading material. Maybe the selection just wasn’t great that day, or I simply wasn’t patient enough. Or maybe, just maybe, I’m fed up with reading entire chapters that go like oh my gosh he’s so hot but we can’t be together because _________(insert random reason here), what shall I do I can’t live without him. Oh, hey look, this guy is also kinda cool. But back to my undying love for _______(insert probably stupid name here). *cough* Crossed *cough*. So when I found Queen of the Tearling in the adult section, but saw that it was a book about a 19-year-old girl inheriting a kingdom with assasin’s all over her, it seemed like the perfect book. Young heroine, corrupt kingdom – it instantly reminded me of Bitterblue, which I loved.
This book wasn’t Bitterblue and Erika Johansen isn’t Kristin Cashore, but it was a great read nonetheless. I cared about the characters because they are flawed, which makes them interesting and I’m curious to find out more. All of them have potential for character development, and I hope that will be exploited in later books. We don’t yet know Mace’s backstory or who Kelsea’s father is and how the Red Queen came to be where she is today. Mace is a great character in general and he actually did get called out on his shit in the end, which I applauded. You know, mentally. I wouldn’t actually applaud, that would be totally weird.
Kelsea grew in her role as a Queen and she just discovered she can do magic. The general atmosphere of the world Kelsea lives in is one I enjoyed and that makes sense if you can ignore its history. Kelsea loves books and makes an effort to fight and, even though she can be self-righteous, she wants the best for her people. Sure, the author overdoes it a little when she tries to tell me that, but the fact is there. Johansen manages to show the damage and destruction the people of the Tearling have suffered in a manner that made them come alive to me. It’s a great read and there are some mystery elements. Johansen gives the reader clues without giving away too much, so it can be fun to figure out crucial parts of the story.
A lot of things in this book were problematic, but not to the point where it took away too much of my enjoyment of the book. I will definitely check out the next book in the series. Most of the reviews I have seen on Goodreads were scathing rants with only few exceptions, and I can sort of understand that. However, this is one of the cases where I’m glad I read the book anyway because I happened to enjoy it a lot. I also found out the book already got picked up for a movie and Emma Watson will be the lead, so I can’t wait to see how that turns out.
In a nutshell, this book has issues-with-a-capital-I, BUT if you’re into young queens struggling with their responsibility, fantastical kingdoms (queendoms?), magic and headstrong characters with potential for development, you should give it a try.
It’s hard to rate because I would give it 4,5 for enjoyment and 2 for world-building, so I’ll go with 3,5 cupcakes.