WARNING: Spoilers ahead!
“Carlin often said that history was everything, for it was in man’s nature to make the same mistakes over and over.”
The premise of The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen seems familiar at first glance. An ordinary teenage girl with a humble upbringing, discovers on the verge of adulthood, that she is the heir to a powerful ruler in her country. This so-called “the chosen one” trope can be found in almost every well-known fantasy novel. As I delve deeper into Kelsea’s world, I begin to discover a rich and complex society, with a tumultuous historical background and conflicts that have been manifesting for centuries. Observing this world through Kelsea’s lens and hearing her internal commentary provide readers with insight into her character. Growing up in a foster home, especially under the tutelage of the authoritative Carlin Glynn, Kelsea’s early education has had a far-reaching impact on her ideas of social justice and governance when she assumes the throne of the Tearling. As a historian formerly employed by the royal family, Carlin taught Kelsea the relation between history and cultural dynamics of the Tearling. Carlin’s authoritarian style of teaching is shown through Kelsea’s flashbacks, and it was clear that Kelsea was wary of Carlin’s disapproval. Whenever Kelsea became tired of school, she was met with her mentor’s disappointment and returned to her studies every time, yet soon after Kelsea is crowned Queen of the Tearling, she quickly asserts herself as a just and righteous ruler who has the courage, or audacity, to face down a hostile nation ready to tear down her country. Knowing that stopping the shipment to Mortmesne may draw the ire of the Red Queen, she gives her first order as queen and releases the Tear prisoners on the verge of being shipped to the enemy. This transition from a meek teenage girl to an authoritative ruler feels rushed and confusing, as authoritarian parenting is linked to shy and socially inept children who cannot make informed decisions for themselves.
The scene where Kelsea first arrives in front of the Keep, ordering the Keep guards to release the people from the cages, she is met with the raucous approval of the crowd. The author frames this moment as testament to Kelsea’s strong will and defiance against the enemy, but there is a huge amount of pressure from the crowd (the mob) directed towards Kelsea to release the prisoners and emotions were running high. If Kelsea did not succumb to public opinion, the crowd could have attacked her. Kelsea’s decision-making is easily swayed by the public’s perception of her, as is the case with Carlin.
“Memory cut infinitely deeper than swords;”
The author masterfully introduces the world in this novel through Kelsea’s perspective. The intricacies of the Tearling is gradually revealed throughout the novel layer by layer-the structure of the Keep, the conflict between the Tearling and Mortmesne, and the Tearling’s social hierarchy.
Barty and Carlin are also evidence of the author’s skill at writing characters. While they only physically appear in the first chapter, they still have a great impact on Kelsea. References of them are sprinkled throughout the novel and they are shown to readers as the plot develops.
The antagonists were flat, very much similar to the stereotypical “evil to the core mustache-curling” villain. I really hope the author will further develop these characters and show their backstory and motivations to readers.
The Queen of the Tearling depicts the atrocities committed towards ordinary citizens, the fortitude demonstrated in the face of suffering, and the coming-of-age story of a nation’s ruler. Highly recommended!