Erika Johansen's The Queen of the Tearling

Tuesday, August 4, 2015
I read this book in preparation for the first meeting of a new local sci-fi/fantasy bookclub Cyborg Knights.This Thursday will be the first meet-up (details here), and I am definitely interested to hear what other bookworms thought of this month's pick.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

There are many things to love about this book -- the main character Kelsea is introspective and earnestly trying to do her best when there are no good choices, the dystopian medieval/future setting is interesting, the Queen's guard is full of well developed characters. I couldn't put the book down when I started it in the evenings; the pacing (which started at a slow burn that caught along faster as you progressed) worked for me. I am a sucker for stories where magic is an unknown quality that you discover with the characters. I thought the story was brought to a good conclusion, for the first in the series. And I definitely plan to read onward in the land of Tearling.

I just... didn't need the constant reminders that Kelsea was ugly. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and physical beauty is just one aspect of a person. The author discussed her motivation for creating an ugly heroine in this blog post last year, and I can attest for plenty of beautiful / perfect female characters in fantasy/sci-fi and applaud her for trying something different. But by focusing on it so steadily, she hasn't created a character that is ugly; she has created a character that is insecure. As the mom of a daughter (with another one on the way), I think we need examples of heroes/heroines doing awesome regardless of physical appearance. I wanted Kelsea to acknowledge that physical beauty may never be hers... and then recognize that she can be awesome and heroic and even feminine without a perfect body or perfect hair or perfect features. She is tantalizingly close to that realization at times, but then it slips away.

To me, there wasn't much in the way of mystery or romance as the book blurbs touted, either. Kelsea develops a crush and then spends most of her time thinking about the crush in terms of how ugly/unappealing she must be to him. One of the central mysteries is simply Kelsea figuring out what her childhood caregivers were unable / unwilling to tell her about her mom. It was an awkward mystery to me; I cannot see how a good citizen of Tearling would not want to educate the future ruler of the kingdom on recent history for some sense of loyalty. It seemed contrived.

Overall, it was a fast read with a few flaws, but one I'd recommend to fans of the fantasy genre in the mood for coming-of-age. I give it a solid 3.5/5 stars.

Favorite Line: “Even a book can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and when that happens, you blame the hands, but you also read the book.”

If you are in the mood for a fantastic fantasy coming-of-age new-royalty-in-a-hostile-environment story -- I have to recommend wholeheartedly is the Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. It has been nominated for a Hugo this year for best novel and is definitely there by merit. It features the story Maia, a half-goblin heir (and thus, physically not considered attractive to most in his kingdom) to the throne who was previously exiled. Everyone (including Maia) is surprised when all other heirs perish along with his father and he is made emperor. There is plenty of court intrigue -- who can Maia trust, as he was never fully educated / prepared for the role he has been thrust into. Maia tries to be a kind ruler in much the same way as Kelsea tries. Neither succeeds to wholly save or win over all, but I think it makes all the better a story that way.

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