Hype is a terrible thing to waste.
The moment anything is pushed by publishers, reviewers or other book related individuals as the next something or other, alarm bells will undoubtedly ring in one’s head, particularly when the comparison made is with a wildly popular series like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones. Couple that with a widely reported large advance for the author and a film in the works before the book even hits the shelves and it’s not surprising to see scepticism reign supreme. Just look at last year’s Next Big Thing The Bone Season, which deflated quickly after a disappointing first couple of weeks. The Queen of the Tearling suffers from many of the same problems as The Bone Season, both in terms of content and marketing. It straddles the gap between YA and adult literature yet feels uncomfortable in both categories, defined in vague terms that ring hollow upon further inspection.
Before I get to the real meat of the review, I feel the need to address a glaring issue with this book, one that’s irritated me since before I even read it. Johansen has gone on record multiple times discussing the need for ugly heroines, or at least ones who don’t fit the narrow patriarchal controlled definition of conventional beauty, in fiction. It’s an admirable viewpoint and one I’d be happy to see more of in fiction, especially those stories aimed at a younger audience. Johansen seems exceptionally proud to have written an unattractive heroine, yet it’s hard to take this selling point seriously when the big sticker on the front cover announces that the story is soon to be a major motion picture starring Emma Watson in the leading role. Ah yes, the notoriously hideous Emma Watson, a woman who is definitely not so stunningly beautiful that she inspires equal amounts of envy and delight in people across the planet. I’m fully aware that Johansen probably had no say in casting for the film, but it’s tough to ignore this somewhat hypocritical point. You can’t publicise a book based on its unattractive heroine while simultaneously reminding everyone that she’ll be played in the movie by one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood.
The Queen of the Tearling is not without potential. There are big ideas at play and ambition to spare but themes of social justice, mistrust between figures of power and inequality seldom stick the landing. Set in New London, in the future sometime after an unexplained event that has left the world in a technology-free Medieval style state, 19 year old Kelsea is set to claim her rightful place on the throne. The circumstances of this setting seldom feel well defined and too many questions are left unanswered regarding the various situations of Kelsea’s kingdom. Why would a post-apocalyptic world return to a governing system based on an absolute monarchy? How does anyone learn to read in a world where books are practically non-existent and printing presses extinct?
The references to a vague magical power in place in this world feel rushed and shoe-horned into the story and act mostly as handy plot devices to justify leaps in logic. Said leaps happen frequently, and the novel commits two of the more heinous crimes in genre fiction. First of all, easily obtained or widely known information is deliberately withheld in order to advance the plot. This proves particularly irritating given that people are omitting important developments or flat out ignoring Kelsea’s pleas for answers, details that would prove helpful for a monarch. Second, we are constantly shown events that differ from what we are told about a person or situation. Kelsea’s introspection and intelligence are referenced even as she makes clearly silly decisions. Her guards are praised for their vigilance and yet one scene includes them setting up camp then drinking extensively while the Queen is in their care. Kelsea is told not to do certain things because the consequences could be disastrous for thousands of people and she admits to not fully understanding the complex political situation laid out in front of her, yet she does them anyway. Forced stupidity to create narrative tension is the sign of a painfully lazy novel. That’s not even including her judgemental attitude towards other people’s appearances. It’s hard to root for the ‘ugly’ heroine when she seems to delight in sneering at various women for their own looks.
Scenes that do work, that contain the tension and excitement various publicity statements promised, are bright lights in a sea of muddled pacing, exposition dumping and a myriad of poorly defined characters. It’s a book that feels at once too long and not long enough to tackle everything the author wants to. Nothing about The Queen of the Tearling feels epic enough for it to warrant the comparisons it’s received from its publicity team. Ultimately, it’s a washout with very little to recommend as it falls into the traps of bad genre fiction while pretending to subvert them. The Queen of the Tearling is a poorly defined read that offers little to the expectant reader because ambition just isn’t enough.
Eva also reviewed this book on the site, which can be found here.