Review of THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING by ERIKA JOHANSEN
(review based on an advance reading copy)
In short, THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING is a decent book that severely suffers from overhype. Though I enjoyed the story, this novel couldn’t live up to all the raving marketing. The primary selling point for this book seems to be that Emma Watson agreed to play the heroine in a movie adaptation even before the book’s publication. (Side note: once you read the book it’s apparent that’s a horrible casting choice. Nothing against Emma Watson. In fact, it’s because she’s too pretty. The book makes a big deal out of the fact that the heroine is not attractive.) A lot of the buzz also describes THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING as a cross between A GAME OF THRONES and THE HUNGER GAMES. After reading the book, that comparison strikes me as a hollow publicity gimmick of throwing out familiar, bestselling book titles. The only similarity I see between THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING and A GAME OF THRONES is the medieval-ish setting. For THE HUNGER GAMES, the fact that there’s a female lead.
I did invest in an engaging plot early on, but never became full absorbed because every time I started to do so my reviewer brain would find itself snagged on some little detail and thrown out of the story back into the real world. My criticisms are petty but numerous. I found this to be a good book, but not great. Entertaining, but not gush-worthy. I would recommend it to people like me who read at least a book a week, but it wouldn’t make the cut if I were talking to someone who reads 10 books or less a year.
The premise sounds like a familiar epic fantasy formula. Princess Kelsea has been raised in hiding and the book begins as she sets out to reclaim her throne and heal a dying land. From there, this story distinguishes itself from other similar ones. Despite a wealth of “book knowledge,” Kelsea’s guardians kept her ignorant of her land’s politics. (A decision that never made sense to me. Why is it a good thing for a leader of a land not to know what’s going on in said land?) THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING is the first in a planned trilogy and the biggest hurdle in this book revolves around Kelsea standing up to a bully of a neighboring country. For years, Mortmesne has demanded a monthly shipment of citizens from weaker lands to be sold into slavery, threatening to obliterate any country that refuses to provide this tribute.
Though she had her moments, Kelsea isn’t quite the heroine I wanted her to be. Too much telling rather than showing. In other words, I felt like author used other characters’ awe and admiration to nudge the reader into feeling the same, but for the most part I remained unimpressed. Kelsea strikes me as rash and lucky. She has a magical family heirloom gem that seems to do most of her work. Some of her actions would be impressive, except she didn’t do anything. Instead the magical stone comes to life without any intent or skill on Kelsea’s part and solves her problems for her.
I’ll summarize my other complaints. I found the storyline rather predictable. I guessed the traitor as well as two late revelations about Kelsea’s foster parents. The setting also confused me. It’s the 24th century, but medieval-ish. Technically future but feels like past. It seems some great humanity crash set everyone back to older ways, but we’re never provided further explanation. Honestly, I only know that much from reading writing about the book rather than the book itself. Last, the writing had some silly, petty slips that I found distracting. As one example, something along the lines of: “She heard an audible snap.” If a snap is a sound, why specify audible? For that matter, why specify audible if she heard it? Far from appalling writing but I do start thinking these thoughts instead of focusing on the story.
Moving on to some of what I admired about the book, the story does raise numerous questions about vanity, one of the primary themes. Kelsea’s lack of beauty comes up early and often. She’s not quite ugly, but she’s entirely unremarkable and plain. She’s overweight, and when she cuts her hair short she realizes that some women can still look gorgeous and feminine with cropped hair...but she looks indistinguishably like a boy. There’s also the fact that her crush calls her “far too plain for [his] taste.” If he does fall for her personality later, will her vanity overcome the fact that he’s made it clear he’s not physically attracted to her in the least? Then there’s Kelsea’s clear contempt for vanity. Her guards even mistreat a woman and I picked up a subtext that it was okay because that woman is vain and, hence, deserved it - which contradicts Kelsea’s intent to be a better ruler than her mother or uncle.
However, I’m not sure Kelsea being a notably flawed protagonist, heroine, and ruler is such a bad thing in a story. I hope it means growth in future books. It certainly means ardent conversations about her strengths and drawbacks, what decisions a reader supports and what ones they don’t.
In general, that’s what I loved about this book: that it’s discussion worthy. I might have criticized this novel a lot in this review, but I certainly had plenty to say. Sometimes I enjoy a book and still find myself staring at a blank page when reviewing, struggling for anything to say about the story. THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING feels somewhat like a gem that could have been polished a lot more, but you can tell it’s a gem nevertheless and not any old interchangeable rock. I also have high hopes that the later books will deliver on the story’s (and the marketing’s) promise of an epic series I won’t soon forget.