Hello all and welcome to an unscheduled edition of Your Mileage May Vary, the blog series where I talk about books I actually finished. This week I veered off the reading schedule I laid out for myself at the beginning of the year, and picked up something not on my list at all: Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen.
Before we get started, as always:
Alright, so right off the bat let me say that I tore through this book. I read the bulk of the first chapter on Monday evening, and by Wednesday morning it was finished. I realized a while back that I am more of a binge reader, and this really exemplified it. After weeks of struggling to get through A Darker Shade of Magic (DNFed at around 25%), that I was whipped up into such a frenzy to finish my very next read came as something of a surprise.
Suffice it to say, I really enjoyed this book. Queen of the Tearling is a character driven, female led, low magic, political fantasy. So, pretty much everything I love wrapped up in a bow.
Our story follows Kelsea, the heir to the throne of the Tearling, a small kingdom lately at war with its much mightier neighbor. Sequestered since infancy to protect her from assassination, Kelsea was sheltered from the truth of how her mother managed to forestall her nation’s conquering: by entering into a treaty that sent human slaves across the border to their enemies once a month.
Justifiably, as Kelsea assumes the throne (still under the relentless threat of being murdered), her first act is to put an end to the practice and in doing so she invites a return to war that saw her people slaughtered.
There’s also a magic necklace that sporadically gives Kelsea a wide range of powers, a barbaric and delightfully creepy Red Queen who doesn’t have a name and is also immortal, and a handsome master thief called simply The Fetch.
Alright, now we’re cooking.
Like I said, I really enjoyed the story. Kelsea’s frustration at not knowing what she was doing, or even anything about the political landscape she was about to enter into, was humanizing and real. I found the detail about her calling her captain of the Queen’s Guard “Mace” in her head, but “Lazarus” out loud weirdly relatable? I enjoyed the slow trickle of power the necklace gave her. I liked that there was enough magic to keep things spicy, but that the real meat of the conflict remained interpersonal – with the evils of people, not anything fantastical.
I don’t normally enjoy grimdark, but I found the Red Queen so compelling that I would have accepted more of it here. I loved her chapters, few as they were, and wished there were more.
I really liked the way Johansen approached her world building. I enjoyed that the setting was fleshed out with context clues, rather than being spoon fed to me. I liked that myriad questions remained about the larger world.
(The Tearling obviously exists on Earth (references to the British and America and The Hobbit abound) and that the kingdom’s founders made some sort of “Crossing” to get to the “New World.” But if this is the new world, where did the old one go? Ostensibly (and textually) the Crossing was made over sea, but is that all the founders crossed? Did they somehow cross into some sort of parallel Earth where magic existed? There is one oblique sentence about the “New World” rising out of the ocean, but what happened to the technology that existed before? Why aren’t there airplanes flying over the Tearling? Apparently all technology the founders had was lost during the Crossing, but surely there were other people left behind in the old world? If they’re still on the same sphere of existence, what happened to them?)
I mean, as strange as it sounds, I actually, actively like the fact that I have these questions. It makes me want to keep reading. I don’t want to hear it all at once in some dry prose that I’ll forget anyway later on, and I honestly can’t figure out why people are mad about it????
Because that’s how I world build and I really need people to like it, okay????????
Okay rant over. And now onto the not great stuff.
Kelsea (beyond having the whitest white girl name) is intelligent, fiercely devoted to the pursuit of what is right, inspires loyalty amongst hardened, cynical men rather quickly, to say nothing of her subjects, and commands a magic crystal that gives her Future Sight, the ability to kill men with a thought if pressed, and other fun powers. She’s pretty close to perfect. But, as we are often reminded throughout the book, she’s not attractive. Plain is the word repeatedly bandied about.
I’m not going to mince words here: BEING UGLY IS NOT A CHARACTER FLAW. And I’m kind of really tired of it being treated as though it is?
I mean, look. I’m of the firm belief that one of the first things a writer should do is sit down and figure out what their main character’s flaw is. After all, it’s easy to think of what they’re good at and why we want to keep reading about them, but a flaw is what separates good characters from dreadful ones. And while I get most writers aren’t interested in writing female characters that are, for example, beautiful but dim for various reasons, it is actually possible to have an intelligent, charismatic, righteous female protagonist without making their biggest weakness their looks.
And, to be fair, I do think Johansen was trying to make Kelsea’s insecurity about her ugliness her flaw, rather than the ugliness itself, however it is treated so flippantly and has such little impact on the narrative that instead it came out feeling the opposite (and really gross). There is even a scene when a former sex slave is describing what it feels like to be valued only for your attractiveness, and Kelsea literally just blows it off. The point is never reconciled on the page or even further expounded upon, leaving me to feel like maybe the author really did think that being ugly was the worse problem?
Bleh. Semi-related, Kelsea’s romantic feelings for the Fetch were just straight stupid. I mean, a real classic case of the author telling us instead of showing us. The Fetch is handsome, a rogue, who saved Kelsea’s life and wants her to be queen, but he’s also not attracted to her, and Kelsea WOULD NEVER BETRAY HIM. No seriously. She literally says that after knowing the man for like twelve hours, and after he explicitly told her she was too ugly for him to rape!!!!! At first it sort of made sense as a superficial crush. After all, he was the first male around her age she’d, like, literally ever seen and, again, hot, but as her feelings for him continued to get figurative screen time (even though the Fetch is absent from both her life and the narrative until the climax) I found myself more and more annoyed by the whole subplot. Being attracted to something dangerous and mysterious, something you can’t have, something just wholesale bangable and nothing more – I get all that as a crush. But don’t try to sell me on deeper feelings there, not after spending the whole book building up Kelsea’s other relationships so deftly. The Fetch can’t be her love interest just because he’s hot and close to her age. Do better.
(Although I do secretly hope that The Fetch is actually the same or at least related to whatever “dark thing” the Red Queen has been cavorting with – the thing that eats children and for some reason doesn’t want Kelsea harmed? Yeah, that’s a plot twist that would make me happy.)
Okay, I think that’s it. For once I don’t have something super nitpicky to harp on. In fact, I think I’ve done plenty of harping to last until the next review.
Final rating for Queen of the Tearling: four out of five miles.
I decided I’m not going to do a DNF review of A Darker Shade of Magic, since my feelings on it can be summed up in a few sentences and I did so last week. I’m disappointed I didn’t like it, but I’m glad I moved on. I’ll keep it in my library for now, just in case I ever want to try again.
Anyway, that’s all from me this time. Until Thursday (hopefully)! May your writing be plenty and your struggles be few.