Writers like Joe Abercrombie have done a lot to bring dirty realism to fantasy books, while people like Jacqueline Carey have added dark sexuality and complex politics. But sometimes you just want an upbeat fantasy where women kick ass. And The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen is the perfect sunny fantasy book.
Some spoilers ahead...
Queen of the Tearling is one of those books that arrives already carrying a lot of buzz, because it's been optioned by the Harry Potter producers and Warner Bros. as a movie, with Emma Watson attached to star. And you can see why this would appeal as a post-Hunger Games, post-Maleficent sort of movie — as a book, it's a fun, zippy read in which things basically work out and a supertough female ruler knocks everything into shape. This book absolutely kept me turning the pages at maximum speed, while also soaking up all of the fun character bits.
In Tearling, Kelsea is the heir to the throne of the Tearling, a peaceful kingdom on some kind of secondary world that refugees from Earth have settled somehow. (They have Harry Potter books and the Bible, but it's not intentionally left vague whether they came in spaceships, or some other kind of vessel.) Kelsea's spent her entire childhood hidden away in a cottage in the middle of nowhere, raised by two foster parents, because her mother is dead.
But now that Kelsea has turned 19, she's ready to take the throne. And as the novel begins, a group of men arrive to take her to New London, the capital, so she can be crowned. But her evil uncle, the Regent, has hired lots of assassins to kill her before she can ever sit on the throne, so they have to fight their way to the city. Plus there's a sexy thief guy, the Fetch, who's basically Dread Pirate Roberts.
And Kelsea soon realizes that her foster parents didn't tell her how bad things had gotten in her kingdom, because of an oath they swore to her mother. Turns out the Tearling lost a war with the neighboring evil kingdom, Mortmesne, and the Tearlings have to send a ton of slaves to the Mort every year. Kelsea is determined to put a stop to these human tributes, but she has to fight entrenched interests in her own kingdom, and face the threat of a new war with the Mort. Oh, and the Church is in cahoots with the slavers too.
This book could have gone in a very dark direction, with slavery and political corruption and abuse — a more "realistic" take on this material would have shown Kelsea struggling to change a situation that's existed for decades, and facing real setbacks. We do hear about a lot of terrible atrocities, mostly second hand, and there's the ever-present threat of war, with pervasive rape and slaughter.
But Tearling is basically a fairytale, with some darkness in the mix. A lot of the fun of this book is in seeing Kelsea triumph over great odds, and slowly win everybody's love and respect. At first, the men who come to fetch her from that cottage in the middle of nowhere see her as a silly young girl who can't do anything — so a lot of the book's arc is about her proving to them (and everybody else) that she's really awesome. As the book goes along, Kelsea gets magic powers to go along with her general tendency to say or do the right thing in almost every situation. Sometimes you just want to read about someone who rights wrongs and makes the world a better place — and this book is here for you.
That said, Kelsea's victories often feel a bit too quick. And her enemies sometimes seem to fold so easily, it's like they're made of hinges. In particular, the sword of Damocles that hangs over her head for the entire book seems like it's just going to dangle forever — although maybe the inevitable sequels will make things darker and more complicated for her.
The good news is, Kelsea isn't a cipher, and she has a lot of emotional and psychological complexity along with her extreme competence. She's super-insecure about her plain appearance, and feels as though nobody will ever be attracted to her (and there's some evidence in the book that she really is considered plain, compared to the court ladies). She's physically awkward, especially when she's trying in vain to learn sword-fighting — there's a lovely bit where she's learning sword play, and the narrator says, "The width of her body, combined with the unwieldy appendage of the sword itself, was a hindrance. When Kelsea twisted around, she found her own limbs blocking her passage."
And a lot of the most interesting stuff in the book does have to do with gender roles — even though these societies seem to be matriarchal or matrilineal, there's a lot of random sexism. And Kelsea's conversations with the women in her world about beauty and selfhood are often way more interesting than her debates over military and political strategy with the dudes.
And a lot of the arc of the book involves not just Kelsea's rise to leadership but also her changing feelings about her mother, who was a weak and vain queen who allowed her people to be sold. Part of why she goes to such extreme lengths is to prove she's nothing like her mother, but she slowly grows into being less reactive and defining herself as her own person, not her mother's daughter.
Plus Kelsea loves books, even as most people around her don't see the use of them, and she dreams of spreading the love of reading throughout her realm. (Something that's sure to endear her to book lovers.)
This is clearly meant to be a feminist take on the heroic journey — to the point where Kelsea even spends a couple of pages looking at classic fantasy books from the Old World (like The Hobbit) and lamenting the lack of female characters. It's also pretty explicitly atheist — Kelsea herself is an atheist, and organized religion is evil and corrupt (although one sympathetic priest is caught between her and his nasty brethren.)
This book is mostly from Kelsea's point of view, but occasionally we switch into the viewpoint of one of the antagonists. This is mostly to convey plot points that Kelsea doesn't know about yet, but there are a few places where it really adds to the story — like when we see the POV of the Regent, who's revealed to be a vain, foolish man who could have been noble if he'd gone down a different path. (There's a great bit where his bedslaves abandon him, and he protests that he gave them all these presents. One replies: "Clothing, jewelry, food, and gold, and you think you paid, Thomas. You didn't, not even close. But I think you will.")
And Javel, a guard who betrays Kelsea, gets some really well done passages where he thinks about his wife Allie, who was sold into slavery — and imagines what Allie would say if she knew the things Javel is doing to get her back.
Queen of the Tearling is a superfast, ridiculously fun read — perfect summer popcorn fare. Kelsea has a lot to prove as a new queen, and she does a lot to prove it. Especially in moments where she takes some colossal chance and says things like, "I see my own death, and exalt in it. But before I go, I'm going to cut a wide swath here, wide as God's Ocean. If you don't want to die with me, you should leave now."
Hell to the yeah.