We’re living in a lucky time where female protagonists in dystopian future societies are popular. We have Katniss struggling to save her family and friends, becoming the unwilling but powerful face of a revolution. We have Tris, who defies societal expectations and ultimately fights to do what she believes is right to save society.
It’s a nice change to see young women kicking butt and taking charge, but these same books also often have distracting romantic elements that end up being a huge part of the plot. There’s not anything inherently wrong with romance, but it appears to have become a necessary element in any novel with a female main character. Can we please have a book with a badass heroine who isn’t tied up in love triangles or going googly-eyed over some guy?
Enter The Queen of the Tearling, the first book in a trilogy by Erika Johansen that some are calling “the Hunger Game of Thrones”. The title character, 19-year-old Kelsea Raleigh, has just come of age to inherit her kingdom. And surprise: There are no male prospects for king! Kelsea takes her place as queen and tries to fix her broken society instead of spending pages and pages dwelling on romance. Can I get an amen?
The Queen of the Tearling is (naturally) set in the Tearling, a future kingdom in what we now call Europe — a welcome change from the American settings of The Hunger Games and Divergent. Tearling was founded by a group of people — presumably Americans — seeking to create a socialist society without the messes caused by technology. They crossed the Atlantic with high hopes, but a revolution quickly turned their utopia into a feudal society where kings and queens rule and nobles exploit the poor. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to have the future become a return to the feudalism of the past.
Unfortunately, a good chunk of the beginning of the book is pretty predictable. A la “Sleeping Beauty,” Kelsea is whisked away as a child for protection. It seems to be a wise choice, as her mother dies soon after and the regent, Kelsea’s uncle, spends the next 18 years trying to find and kill her. And across the border from the kingdom of the Tearling is Mortmesne, ruled by the Red Queen, who also wants Kelsea killed. It gets a tad old when there’s a new threat to Kelsea’s life around every corner.
And while the world is out to kill her as she travels to claim her throne, Kelsea wonders what state her kingdom may be in — details her guardians promised her mother they would not reveal to her. It may be natural for Kelsea to imagine that her mother was the perfect monarch who could do no wrong, but anyone with experience reading fantasy will be impatient for her to discover that isn’t the case.
When her mother’s grave actions and their tragic results — here’s where comparisons to The Hunger Games come into play — are finally revealed to Kelsea, the story finally starts to pick up, and we get to see some magic.
Kelsea slowly comes into her own, stubbornly surviving assassination attempts and righting the wrongs that have plagued the Tearling and sparking the wrath of the Red Queen in the process. As you can imagine, she has plenty to occupy her mind, leaving the readers free from having to dwell with her on her crush, an enigmatic outlaw with plenty of blood on his hands.
And the readers don’t only get to see the world from Kelsea’s vantage point: We get to peek into the mind of the Red Queen, the regent, and even a conflicted castle guard. The different viewpoints provide a broader view of this world than what we get from Katniss and Tris in their respective series.
Although we get a greater variety of viewpoints on what’s happening in the present, I was left with questions about the past. Information on the history of the Tearling comes in fits and spurts and leaves out details like how Europe became an apparently blank slate, and why all technology was abandoned. Hopefully the next books will explain the foundation of the Tearling and its transformation into a feudal society a bit more.
We might associate a feudal society with a time when women were little more than attractive, child-bearing accessories, but our heroine in The Queen of the Tearling is anything but passive and refuses to follow society’s — or readers’ — expectations. Unlike the female leads in other fantasy novels, Kelsea is “plain.” Not in the Bella Swan “Oh everyone is falling all over themselves for me but I still think I’m ugly” kind of way. Other characters readily admit that she’s no physical beauty. But — gasp! — they admire her nonetheless because of her actions, the power she wields as a force for good. Kelsea shows a woman’s true strength lies not in her looks, or in her ability (even if unconscious or unintended) to make people fall for her: It’s in her actions. And what Kelsea does — protecting women who have been subjected to abuse, trying to help those sold into prostitution, and struggling to fix the greater wrongs endured by her people — is significant.
The climax of the book, unfortunately, is a little disappointing. Johansen’s debut novel suffers from a somewhat flat story arc — readers draw near to the end of the book expecting the start of a war, and instead they barely get a skirmish. However, Kelsea’s fiery personality, the burst of magic and the wonderful — if brief — intensity of the book’s final conflict are more than enough to keep readers turning the pages and wanting more when the pages run out.
Overall, it’s an exciting opening into a new world that fantasy buffs will enjoy. With Kelsea’s incessant desire to change the world for the better and her love of books (the Harry Potter series gets a wonderful shout-out), The Queen of the Tearling is a fantastic escape from the male-dominated fantasy worlds we’re used to — and from the romance-soaked dystopian novels we’ve seen of late.
And if you need another reason to read The Queen of the Tearling, the supremely fabulous Emma Watson has already signed on to produce and star in the movie version, even though Kelsea is described as plain and Emma Watson is, well…
So enjoy your entrance into the world of the Tearling, where men follow a stubborn queen with a fiery temper who spends minimal time obsessing over love interests and maximum time kicking butt and righting wrongs. And be ready to run out and get the sequel, The Invasion of the Tearling, which came out last month, because you’ll be ready to see more from Kelsea and watch the magic grow.