Erika Johansen’s debut novel, Queen of the Tearling, is a sure-handed and accomplished start to a new series. The novel opens as a cadre of Queen’s Guards arrive at a humble little cabin in the woods to retrieve Kelsea Raleigh. The young heir to Tearling throne was smuggled away as a baby and raised in secret. With the Regent’s (her uncle) assassins closing Kelsea must face what may be the shortest reign any monarch has seen. On her journey to New London she meets an enigmatic bandit known only as the Fetch and begins her true education in regards to the devil’s bargain her mother made after the invasion from Mort burned its way to the walls of the palace. Once in New London Kelsea moves to right the wrongs of her mother’s reign while doing her best to stay alive long enough to usher in true change.
Queen of the Tearling features a young, teenaged protagonist yet manages to walk a fine line between marketing towards adults and teens. Equally, appealing to either demographic some of the more mature content and adult themes might not appeal to younger teens. With a novel like this it is often the main protagonist that makes or breaks things. I am happy to report that Kelsea is a joy of a protagonist. Johansen has crafted a delightfully complicated young woman whose insecurities are rounded out by her grit and determination. Kelsea isn’t defined by her fears and despite the fantastical settings her insecurities, particularly her body image issues, are normal. Johansen takes things a step further by surrounding Kelsea with a cast of characters who accentuate her qualities and whose own personalities, while not always as well rounded as Kelsea’s, make for an interesting shift in perspective. The best-rounded secondary character is Sir Lazarus of the Mace, a Queen Guard whose steady presence and no-nonsense attitude provides a firm grounding for Kelsea as she wades into dangerous waters. Lazarus, is a bit of a mysterious character in the beginning of the novel. While his past remains in the dark his actions serve to define a man of utmost loyalty and honor with a willingness to employ scrupulous violence in service to his Queen; even when she might not necessarily want him to. I doubt that Queen of the Tearling would work nearly without the dynamic between Kelsea and Lazarus.
My biggest problem with Queen of the Tearling are the villains of the story. While Johansen manages to show, to some extent, that the Regent is a product of his upbringing less is done to flesh out the country of Mort and particularly its Queen; as the nominal “big bad” Johansen does very little to illustrate their motives. We know that Mort is more advanced when it comes to medicine and technology and that they have a great need for manpower. It’s the “why” of that manpower that is the true mystery and while the question of Mort’s need for manpower is mentioned there are very few hints as to the answer. Even the nobility of Tear are shown to be greedy, venal, and self-interested with only slight variations in how much they exhibit those traits. Arlen Thorne, master of the census, is perhaps the most fascinating villain in the novel, if only due to his cunning, but again outside of greed readers are left with very little information regarding his ultimate goal. Johansen does perhaps too good of a job in illustrating how “evil” the villains are but their lack of definition beyond their horribleness leaves them feeling a bit bland and boring.
The setting of Queen of the Tearling is also rather fascinating. The novel takes place sometime in humanity’s future where a group of humanity (perhaps all of humanity) has left what I presume to be Earth to found a new society. The rigors of the Crossing, as it is referred to in the novel, left these new settlers with some major issues not the least of which was the loss of most of the scientists who made the journey. The world takes many of its cues from pre-industrial history but knowledge regarding the technology of old still exists even if the keys to its manufacture are lost. As a result the “magic” of the novel is likely something else entirely, though a scene towards the end of the novel, makes me question even that. It’s an interesting aspect of the novel and gives readers some familiar footing as Kelsea begins to make changes to her kingdom based on our shared past.
Queen of the Tearling is a novel carried by the strength of its protagonist. Kelsea is an interesting character whose growth over the novel from the scared girl hiding in the trees on page one to the woman standing on the balcony before the adoring masses is a joy to read. While the villains often simple feel evil for evil’s sake I remain hopeful that there will be more nuance explored in further novels. The world of Queen of the Tearling is also fascinating and the mystery behind why these people came to be where they are is one I look forward to reading about. Thankfully, Invasion of the Tearling is out now so I won’t have to wait long to find out what happens next.