The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
As I read it, I was pleasantly surprised to feel like I was reading the Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, which was a good thing because I really enjoyed that novel. There is more outright and bloody intrigue in this novel, though, and when things starting diverging from consolidating her rule and going to war, the similarities end almost immediately. Not a bad thing at all. There's no pussyfooting around before we get into the action. She knows her mind, even if it is prompted to her by her PD jewel, and she goes after all the things that she believes is right. She's no Sleeping Beauty, and for that, I love it.
There are some pretty major character reveals/reasons that are left out of the first book, but none of them belong to our heroine. She's a book nerd which is going to serve her very well in upcoming volumes because we know, (reasonably absolutely, at least in my head,) that the intelligent and powerful magic jewels and the dark monster living inside the Red Queen comes from before the "Crossing". Backstory is coming. It has to. Which makes me wonder about the "Crossing". It sounds like all these descendants in these four kingdoms came from an alternate earth after a cataclysm in "our" future. Either that, or they copied all the names of the lands from their old history after landfall and an interstellar passage.
Does this sound like fantasy? Ok, sure, it does sound like sci-fi, but one thing anyone ought to notice is that the novel really feels like fantasy right down to its core. The only sci-fi aspects are those that are merely hinted at, like doctors who are so powerful that one can service a large town, or plastic surgery, or deeper hints that life-extension is not only possible, but is being exploited by a powerful few. What did I think about when so many droves of small children got their blood sucked out by a the Red Queen's dark little beasty? That's right. Concentrated life juice to keep her skin all supple. The sex is just a part of the life-force harvesting, I'm sure. So do we have a reason for all the rapey-rapey rapefest? I'm willing to bet anything on it, and I'm still working on the hints I've received from this text alone. I just got the second book, so I really want to see if my suspicions pan out or if I'm going to be blown away by something even better. (I hope it's something better.)
I really loved how there wasn't much in the way of romance. Enough is enough already. I didn't mind the preachy idealism, either, because our main character is 19 years old, after all, and she is coming into a wildly complicated situation armed with nothing but her standards and the fact that the populous is expressing a weird "here is the chosen one" vibe. It's not too oppressive, at least, and the powerful and willful jewels lend it some credence, but at least it explains a bit more of why they let her on the throne besides matrilineal succession with or without the religious angles.
I suppose the only real problem I have with the tale is the overreliance on the jewels. I know that's kind of unfair, because the main character is headstrong, intelligent, and capable. She has a good mix of ruthlessness and mercy. She's a good person who doesn't sit around and let things come to a head. She jumps in and immediately tries to fix whatever she sees as wrong. None of that has anything to do with the jewels. Unfortunately, the jewels do seem to steal the show when they come into play. It's almost as if we don't really 'need' this capable woman, because she already has a god-like plot device to handle her decision making for her.
Other than that, the intrigue and the plot twists were quite delightful and extensive. Almost the entire book was filled with it. I particularly liked how she eventually got so many people to bend the knee to her. The best times were the ones that were earned.
I totally recommend this book if you're looking for a traditional fantasy with a strong female out to destroy another strong female. The villains are a bit adult-cartoonish in this first novel, but I'm almost to the opinion that this was an editorial choice, and not particularly one that the author might have liked. I think I'd have preferred to see a bit more dimensions on the POV twists. That being said, this novel is a pretty damn good start to a series. I'm glad I hadn't read any of the blurbs or PR before picking it up.
A good review is usually enough to convince me to give this a chance, and so it was. I hope the same will be true for you, too!
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