Titles: The Queen of the Tearling, The Invasion of the Tearling, The Fate of the Tearling
Author: Erika Johansen
My rating: 4 / 5
Is it worth reading? Definitely. If you love fantasy, action, politics, and magic sapphires, this is the series for you. It’s central plot conflict stretches across three books, making the resolution exciting and (mostly) satisfying.
THERE WILL BE SPOILERS AHEAD. DON’T WORRY—I’LL GIVE YOU PLENTY OF WARNING.
Great, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get started.
Although I love the genre, I’m realizing that I’m very picky when it comes to fantasy. (Kind of like choosing a Netflix show, if I’m going to commit to 6 seasons, it has to be good).
It’s so easy for fantasy to become cheesy and silly (especially in YA—sorry YA lovers!). And one of my top requirements for good fantasy is a fully fleshed out world. Without good world-building, fantasy flops for me.
This series is not nearly as detailed or lush as The Name of the Wind or Game of Thrones, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Tearling series relies largely on intrigue and action to keep the story moving, and I found it to be a nice change of pace.
A quick glance at Goodreads will tell you that there are a lot of mixed feelings about this series. Some loved it, some hated it, some were extremely offended by it (still trying to figure out why). Some of my favorite reviewers were split down the middle. Just another reminder to try things for yourself sometimes before writing them off!
This book had a lot of the quick-read, can’t-put-it-down elements I like about YA books, without all the annoying things I hate about YA books (hormones, unrealistic love, hormones, drama, hormones).
Let’s dive in.
First of all, I have never read a book with a main character like Queen Kelsea. I’m sure there are many similar characters out there, but for me, this was a first.
I love that Kelsea is scared and strong and fiercely loves her kingdom. I even like that anger seems to be her greatest vice (uncommon in female characters, in my reading experience).
In the second and third books, I liked how she struggled with her own growing internal darkness…a power that was starting to spiral out of control and into evil. To me, a hero or heroine who doesn’t face some sort of darkness and learn to overcome it is a rather flat, unrealistic sort of hero.
I like that Kelsea isn’t perfect. She has a tendency to use people (especially Pen), gives in to indecision and despair at times, and struggles to see the big picture when she’s trying to do the right thing. She’s complex, and that makes her interesting.
What I found interesting was that this story was so good without having any kind of strong romantic angle. Kelsea is more concerned with the work of rebuilding and improving her kingdom than allowing a romance—even a good romance—to interfere with her work.
The Tearling series has a LOT of villains. You have pedophiles, child zombies, dark queens, immortal villains-turned-good-guys, traffickers, and more. The evil does a good job of highlighting the light—the good that Kelsea is striving for. And many of the bad guys are wonderfully three-dimensional. This further highlights the fact that the most believable characters are usually not completely good or completely evil. Our childhood experiences and our pasts radically impact our present—just ask the Queen of Mortmesne.
The World Building
Although I thought the world was fleshed out enough, I don’t think the series would have suffered from a few more chapters that gave us more detail. I wanted to know more! For example, on one side of the spectrum, I think of 11/22/64 by Stephen King, in which the world was so fully fleshed that I almost got bored because the action seemed secondary to the world. On the other side are works like The Selection by Kiera Cass, in which the world is barely explained—leaving huge plot holes and frustration for the reader. The Tearling series falls somewhere in the middle.
This was by no means a perfect series. For me, the good mostly outweighed the bad, except in a few points.
Subplot vs. Plot
I’m not sure if this is a negative or not, but sometimes I found the subplot of Lily’s and Katie’s stories (in books two and three) more interesting than Kelsea’s story. Granted, it all mingles together the closer you get to the end, but I found myself flying through the Lily/Katie passages and slowing down in the Kelsea ones. Especially in book two, it felt like the non-Lily portions of the book mostly involved Kelsea stumbling around, stressing herself out, and trying to figure out how she was going to stop the approaching Mortmesne army (aka, nothing really happened and the lack of action edged on boring).
At the end of the series, all of the mysteries are not explained or solved. I’ve read a few places that Johansen may be working on more books about Tearling, so maybe more will be revealed. I wanted more explanation. How did William Tear get the sapphire in the first place? Does the Tearling exist in another dimension, or in a different time? Does it exist during the same time as the old world, but is impossible to find without a sapphire? What happens if you sail away in God’s Ocean? Again, this comes back to the world building. A few more chapters would have made me happy.
For the most part, I was left intrigued rather than irritated. Hopefully we will learn more soon.
Just as a warning to sensitive readers, this series does tackle some heavy issues. An entire family has been physically and sexually abused. Human subjects are experimented on in the Queen of Mortmesne’s laboratory. A general has a sexual taste for children, and expects them as part of his plunder. An entire underground network of child fighters, prostitutes, and more exists in New London. Humans are trafficked and sent to Mortmesne in payment. There is the violence of war, and from Kelsea herself. There is some sex, but only a few short scenes. One character experiments with the occult and raises an army of dead children.
Treatment of Religion
Oddly enough, I found this series quite spiritual in unexpected ways.
If you’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale, the version of Christianity in the Tearling series will seem familiar. “God’s Church” is exploitative, greedy, and hypocritical. It’s religion twisted to suit man’s lusts, a weapon of control, and a comfort for the weak-minded and fearful.
Basically, it’s what Christianity would be without Jesus.
I didn’t find it offensive, because it’s clearly a caricature of what following Christ actually looks like. That’s not to say there aren’t church leaders exploiting followers both today and throughout history, but in reading Christ’s words, I’m comforted that Christ never advocates or condones such corruption.
In the midst of all the “Christian” corruption, I was pleased to find a grain of truth central motivation of all the “good” characters in the book—the longing for a better world. I believe we all share this central longing.
One of the core reasons I believe Christianity is true is because it’s the only thing that makes the world make sense to me. When I see the despair, the suffering, and the hurt in our world today and throughout history (similar to the corruption of the Tearling), I can’t help but long for a better world. I’m so thankful to have hope and confidence that one day Christ will set all things to rights—He alone will bring about the better world.
Although the Tearling books touch on our universal longing for a world without evil, the solution—establishing a utopia—is one that I don’t believe will ever be fully realized. We all have the capacity for good and evil inside us, but without Christ, we have no hope of establishing anything fully good and perfect.
But that also doesn’t mean we should sit back and do nothing until Christ returns. We have a responsibility to fight against injustice, speak the truth, stand up for what is good and true, love relentlessly, and say no to evil at every turn. We have work to do. It won’t be a utopia, but it can be good.
I’m still not sure how I feel about it.
Although I didn’t see the ending coming, it was an interesting twist on the whole series. On the other hand, it felt like a bit of a cop-out…like Johansen couldn’t figure out a good way to wrap up the series, so she just went with the “change-the-course-of-the-future” route instead of figuring out a way to preserve the characters, setting, and struggle we’ve come to care about.
Here are the two main problems with the ending:
One: As mentioned, I don’t really believe true utopias are possible. Somehow we’re supposed to believe that after Kelsea kills Row Finn, the fallen son determined to destroy his father’s work (an intentional or unintentional analogy to Satan, Christ, and God?), it sets off a chain of events that leads to Utopia finally being realized in the Tearling.
As much as it makes for a happy ending, I just have a hard time believing that not one greedy, power-hungry, or selfish individual wouldn’t rise up against the common good. I just can’t suspend disbelief enough to think that all a utopia needs is the right conditions, and suddenly everyone will care about the common good and stop being selfish.
Two: The ending also felt odd because Kelsea is such a powerful and dynamic character that I have a hard time seeing her being content to live in anonymity for the rest of her life. As we saw in the other two books, Kelsea is constantly battling with a dark side. Despite the fact that Kelsea’s temptation with darkness seems to originate from Row’s sapphires, I think her struggle will always be internal. And I think she loves being powerful, even if she uses her power for good.
And the part where Kelsea sees the sapphires in a museum and seems to be tempted to take them makes me wonder … A) How has no one ever been tempted by their power?! B) Is Kelsea going to take them back to try and regain her old life??
I guess we’ll just have to wait to find out. The ending didn’t ruin the series for me, but it just wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped. It didn’t ring true to the norms of the series. I’m just not sure I believe it.
Overall, I really liked this series, and would recommend them to any fantasy lover. I look forward to reading whatever Johansen writes next!