As soon as The Queen of the Tearling arrived on my desk, beautifully wrapped in brown paper and string (thanks Bantam Press), I knew it was going to the top of my to-read list.
And that was before I read that it was being turned into a film, with Emma Watson and Harry Potter producer David Heyman on board. It's fair to say, then, that this book had some expectations to meet.
Kelsea Glynn has grown up in the forest, her only contact her foster parents Barty and Carlin. She's always known she is the Queen of the Tearling kingdom, and at last, her dead mother's guards have come to collect her and take her to the Tearling to claim her throne.
But for Kelsea, learning to be a queen means earning the trust and respect of her guard, fighting off all those who want to kill her, and coming to terms with the reality that her mother, Elyssa, was far from a noble, philanthropic, strong queen.
The Queen of the Tearling's best point, and the one that has to be addressed first, is its protagonist. Kelsea is inspirational, frustrating, mature, childish, heartbroken - in other words, she's a really well formed, very realistic character (as much as a fictional queen of a fantasy world can be). She's idealistic, and as soon as she sees wrongdoing knows she must set it right, but she doesn't fully consider the consequences and lets her heart guide her. She's tough and a fighter, but still harbours a very female desire to be seen as beautiful as well as clever and brave (which is very honest, it's okay for feminists to want to be pretty). And she perseveres in the face of disappointment after disappointment, knowing she has a responsibility to her people.
One of the things I love most about Kelsea is that she has to prove herself. Often, heroes are mostly full formed when you meet them. Yes, they might have to overcome some adversity, but they almost always immediately display all the heroic characteristics needed to succeed. Kelsea is different. Johansen gives us a character who is far from a queen at the beginning of the novel, despite all the work Barty and Carlin have done with her, and over the course of the book thrusts her into situations where she is likely to fail, and up against people who would do her down, or who don't believe in her. It's up to Kelsea to work out what needs to be done, to toughen herself up, to know when to show compassion, and to battle through even when those closest to her are against her. And as she does that, she becomes more and more queenly, so that by the end of the novel, we as readers fully believe in her power.
The Queen of the Tearling is a character driven novel. As well as Kelsea, there are some brilliant secondary characters including Mace, her guard; the mysterious Fetch, a thief; and of course the enemy Queen of Mortmesne, and her Tearling "representative" Thorne. But alongside the character, a good fantasy needs a well-formed world, and I think Johansen mostly achieves this. The Tearling, Mortmesne and their surroundings are well described, and you can picture the forests and fields that Kelsea journeys through, as well as imagine the Tearling and its many different neighbourhoods.
Where The Queen of the Tearling slightly falls down is on some of its mythology. This isn't just a fantasy, it's an alternative history (or future?) fantasy. America, Britain and the rest of earth existed, as did all mod cons like drugs, but then something happened and there was a Crossing, which resulted in the world of the novel. The Crossing isn't very well explained, and I'm hoping that Johansen comes to address this in future novels, and make clearer what happened. During the first novel, mentions of Britain and so on felt a little jarring, and took me out of my fantasy mindset for a moment.
However, that's my only complaint. Putting that to one side, The Queen of the Tearling is a wonderful novel. If Johansen carries on the way she does, the series is sure to be well deserving of the epic fantasy tag. And if Kelsea carries on the way she does, she'll become one of those characters in literature we all want to be.
How I got this book: From the publisher, Bantam Press. This did not affect my review.