You could write “The Queen of the Tearling” off as yet another young-adult female fantasy novel, but that would be doing it an injustice. It’s actually quite intriguing and the characters are written compelling enough that you want to finish the book.
Unfortunately, the predictable plot has only a few quirks to make it more original. It is obviously a setup for more books to come.
As a baby, Kelsea Raleigh was sent away by her mother, the feckless Queen Elyssa, and hidden on a small farm. When Kelsea is 7, Elyssa dies, and her daughter inherits the throne of Tearling.
One positive thing Johansen has done is to prepare her heroine for the future. Barty, and his wife, Carlin, two nobles-turned-commoners to keep Kelsea protected and safe, teach her history, languages and math and train her in her future duties. Also, she’s one of the few contemporary fantasy heroines who actually comes with some knowledge of her situation, learns as she goes along and doesn’t run away from hard decisions — like cutting throats.
On her 19th birthday, a group of soldiers, the Queen’s Guard, including the enigmatic Mace, show up to escort Kelsea to the capitol to be crowned, since it turns out she has a price on her head that many would like to earn.
She arrives in the capitol just in time to witness the cost of the peace with the neighboring bully state, Mortmesne, ruled by the evil Red Queen — a monthly tribute of captive men, women and children from Tearling to keep the peace.
By interrupting the shipment, Kelsea basically steps onto the world stage and is instantly becomes the target of the Red Queen, the Church and everyone who has a stake in keeping the status quo intact in Tearling, including the clinically evil Arlen Thorne.
On her side she’s got her magical sapphires, her Guard and the mysterious Fetch, who runs a Robin-Hood-ish group out in the countryside.
The world created by Johansen is solidly drawn with interesting characters — all with hidden pasts, traumas and flashing swords.
The most jarring anachronisms are part of the setup. Tearling and Mortmesne were populated by people connected with contemporary Earth via something called the Crossing. Among other things they brought J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” and the J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”
The book suffers from let’s-not-tell-the-heroine-anything syndrome, leaving her to blunder about making decisions that she may not have made with a little more information.
On the other hand, it’s also an interesting read. You want to know what happens to all the characters, of which Kelsea is not the most interesting.
The villains, though, are stock so far. The Red Queen could have come out of adult graphic comics, including the gory sex with random men and giving children to blood-sucking demons. Thorne is a Nazi know-it-all bureaucrat in a red cloak.
The “Queen of the Tearling” sets up the world and the characters. It will be interesting to see where it goes.
“The Queen of the Tearling” by Erika Johansen; Harper Collins (448 pages, $26.99)