The Queen of the Tearling has all of the elements that have made such dystopian/fantasy novels so popular with the young adult crowd. Yet, this story is definitely for adults. There is explicitness to the Tearling and to Mortmesne that one does not see in young adult novels. In her fight to be queen and to maintain her crown, Kelsea must fight some of the greatest evils humans can inflict on one another. More importantly, she must make the most difficult choices in which sometimes there is no winnable solution, as a true leader often faces. The details are graphic, to the point where it might make some readers highly uncomfortable. Yet, Kelsea’s determination to win back her kingdom provides the perfect good versus evil scenario that will overcome a reader’s disgust and rouse their admiration.
Because this is the first novel in a series of three, there are, as expected, many unanswered questions. However, this does not prove detrimental to one’s enjoyment of the story. If anything, it creates a delicious sense of anticipation; for, the unanswered questions are a reminder that there are hidden depths to Kelsea’s powers and an entire unknown aspect of Tearling history she must learn before she can repair the damage of her predecessors. Since the reader only sees the unfolding events through Kelsea’s eyes, one does not mind the lack of answers because it allows the reader to empathize with Kelsea in such a fashion that would have proved impossible if a reader had more knowledge than she does. A reader’s ignorance enhances the story because of the active involvement in attempting to solve the mysteries alongside Kelsea.
The story moves along at a quick pace without sacrificing world building. Character development may be slight but it is a forgivable offense due to the fact that neither Kelsea nor the readers know anything about the characters she meets along her journey and in her palace. Visually, Kelsea’s world is stunning. With its gorgeous attention to all five senses, readers appreciate the physical difficulties Kelsea must endure. There is an added wonder in the origins of the Tearling because for all its antiquated tools and equipment, those living in the Tearling are living in the future. This is not a post-apocalyptic world in which civilization regresses. It is a lifestyle choice made hundreds of years ago by a group of settlers. This is a very important distinction and one that truly sets The Queen of the Tearling apart from other fantasy or science fiction novels.
There is so much to love about Erika Johansen’s novel and very little to dislike. Her characters are realistic, mysterious, and even fun. Her setting is intriguing and detailed. The hints at the Tearling past raise more enticing questions without distracting from the main story. One instinctively knows that there is more substance than initially appears, that the apparent good versus evil scenario which is so interesting is going to be a lot messier by the time the series ends. It is this potential – for answers, for more depth, for more gray areas of morality – that make The Queen of the Tearling truly impressive and which will grab a reader’s imagination the most.