Erika Johansen, Queen of the Tearling

It’s a good thing that this book is going to be made into a movie (with Emma Watson, no less, directing it AND starring in it), because it will almost certainly function better as a movie. The novel, as it stands, is deeply flawed, although it’s possible that the SERIES will redeem itself, much as the simplistic, moralistic world of Star Wars was redeemed rather nicely by The Empire Strikes Back. Let’s hope so, as otherwise the exercise of wading through all 434 pages of this book will turn out to have been quite a waste of time. It works nicely as setup; but almost everything that would make that setup worthwhile or interesting has been reserved for future books.

I’m not happy to say this, and I know there are people out there who will disagree with me. I see real promise scattered throughout the novel, but it’s overwhelmed by things that smothered my enthusiasm every moment it started to catch fire for me.

But the good things first. There is a very interesting premise — future medieval, with a cataclysm in between — that plays out in very interesting ways. There are some incredible cinematic sequences in this story, very sharply described and choreographed. There are key characters who are very briefly sketched, yet come vividly to life, like Lazarus and the Fetch. And I have to admit, I’m a sucker for the basic concept — the Hidden Princess trope, with its corollary issues — a protagonist who must confront a world not of her making, in which her choices will have over-sized consequences. That makes it kind of tricky to review a work like this, because on the one hand, I’m hyper sensitive to the pitfalls involved. On the other hand, my personal interest could make this review something of an overreaction. I hope it doesn’t come across as too negative, because I really do think there’s an incredible story in this novel. My criticisms are the sharper for that precise reason.

Let me work my way backward through the faults I see. For some readers, these faults might not spoil the read; but they did for me.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. Read on only if you’re ok with that.
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1. Deus ex machina (in this case, Demon ex Machina) isn’t the best way to get your character out of a hole they’ve dug.
When your protagonist makes what should be a fatal, utterly disastrous decision, heedless of the consequences, it’s really a bit much to save her from her own stubborn commitment to Doing the Right Thing by having the ultimate bad guy tell the villain to back off. That’s what you do to set up a mystery in the opening of a novel and gradually account for along the way, not something you do when you have a huge plot thread hanging in midair and only forty pages before your novel gets way too long.

And hey, if you start the story by gifting your protagonist with not one, but TWO magic jewels, it’s a bit much that nobody but nobody has a clue that they’re magic, even though they’ve been the talisman of the royal house for generations. And then their magic shows up just when the protagonist is about to get her throat slit, to conveniently kill an assassin when she hasn’t the faintest idea that it even is magic, much less have a clue how to use it. Just-in-time inventory is the blessing of modern management; but as a reader of fantasy, just-in-time magic doesn’t exactly make me feel warm and fuzzy.

2. Internal point of view is a great thing, but it’s not the Universal Solvent.
Boy, does Kelsea, the Queen-to-be-of-the-Tearling, spend a lot of time musing about anything and everything going on around her. OK, I get it, she’s that kind of character, but when you start overusing internal point of view for all the other functions of story-telling — exposition, character development, world-building, you name it — well, I stop believing it’s really her voice any more.

3. It takes more to build a world than to describe the bare facts. Readers want to know why.
Just how do we get from the 21st century to Kelsea’s world via the fabled Crossing? (Or, what kind of ocean can you set sail on from both Europe AND America?). How do we get from a world without magic to a world in which magic is central? We have a stark before and after, but it’s left a total mystery how we got there from here.

It’s quite possible that the author has very reasonable explanations for all of these things — this novel feels very much like the introduction to the story, not the story itself. That’s not necessarily a fault — that’s one of the functions of the first book in a series. But as a fantasy reader, I expect the world building and the plot to make sense when you ask hard, critical questions, and I would really have liked to have had much more time with interesting characters like the Fetch, rather than having him show up only when he’s necessary to the machinery of the plot. I don’t think that’s too much to ask; and maybe in the movie, and in subsequent books in this series, I’ll see those desires fulfilled.

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