A couple of years ago, I remember sitting in the lobby of my then-workplace, paging through a copy of The Bookseller. An article caught my eye; it was about a just-released book, part of a series, that had already been tapped for a major movie. It had even snared the attention of Emma Watson, who was already in talks to play the lead character. As far as I remember, the article called this new series (fantasy of course), a ‘female’ Game of Thrones, which basically meant that the main character was a woman (though there are plenty of female ‘main’ characters in Game of Thrones and thousands of women love it, so I have no idea what the writer meant by this rather reductionist statement). The article also mentioned that it was a sureshot bestseller, as things tend to become when Emma Watson is associated with them.
So finally, three years after reading that article, I picked up the series. They are the Tearling books: The Queen of the Tearling and The Invasion of the Tearling by author Erika Johansen. What were they like? A mixed bag, to be honest, but I can’t deny that I see the cinematic potential and I did enjoy them, more often than not.
The first book, The Queen of the Tearling, starts off quite dramatically. Kelsea, a lonely foster child, is retrieved from her home with the elderly Barty and Carlin by a posse of Queen’s Guards and taken to the Keep in New London, the capital of the Tear. Now that she is 19, Kelsea has come of age and must assume her rightful place on the throne left vacant by her mother, that is, if she can live long enough to reach it. Assassination attempts by hawks, mercenaries and sundry others turn out, however, to be the least of Kelsea’s problems. The kingdom she’s inherited is riddled with corruption and violence, and as an idealistic young woman, Kelsea sets out to right its wrongs, but she ends up ruffling more than a few feathers along the way, most notably those of the mysterious and terrible Red Queen of neighbouring Mortmesne.
The series is rather slow to start with. The Queen of the Tearling, indeed, is really just one long journey towards the Throne, and dealing with one specific problem of the kingdom (I won’t spoiler it by telling you what it is), but things really begin to look up in the second book. This might also have to do with Kelsea growing on me as a character. In Book 1, she seemed far too much like the breed of heroine who’s come in vogue since Katniss Everdeen: surly, lonely and with a healthy disrespect for authority. I found it hard to warm to her, especially since it seemed like every second thought of hers was regret for how ‘not pretty’ she was. But she really sinks into your blood in Book 2, and I ended up embracing her. In fact, I disliked the increasing jaunts away from her, into the head of a new character who seems set up as an originating figure, an explanation for the mysterious ‘Crossing’ that brought all these people to this world in the first place.
I won’t deny that the mythology and origin of this world is a little muddled. It’s obvious that the Tearling books are set in our world, or one very much like it. Characters refer to medical supplies and equipment being ‘lost’ during this Crossing, they read Rowling and Tolkien and other ‘real world’ books, and the new character quite obviously lives in a dystopic USA. Book 2 seeks to explain the connections and the reason for all these ‘real world’ objects, but it left me feeling more than a little confused. Apart from that, there is another question: if all these people came from the US, why are most, if not all, the characters white? There is one black man in the Tear, and he is a rarity, as he himself knows. The neighbouring kingdoms of Mortmesne and Cadar are obvious parallels to France and some sort of Orientalist Arab fantasy, which can be explained away as fantasy staples, but again, if you have a bunch of people emigrated from America, a land notorious for its melting-pot-status, why, precisely, are they overwhelmingly white?
That being said, the lack of ‘diversity’ in the manner in which I understand it does not make the books any less enjoyable (as I’ve tried to explain, the fact that I’m mentioning it is only because the origin story for the land left me feeling a little confused). Johansen’s strength is in writing the fantasy segments; when she moves into Atwoodish dystopic territory, my attention began to flag. I hope Book 3 brings a lot more of Tear as it is in the present, and more of the kickass Kelsea that I’ve grown to like. Oh, and I’ll definitely watch Emma Watson play her. She would absolutely slay in this role.