When a new book by a debut author is hailed to be “the next Hunger Games” or “the female Game of Thrones”, something pretty spectacular is to be expected. The huge marketing campaign behind Erika Johansen’s debut The Queen of the Tearling boldly makes both claims – rather odd, as I had thought the “female” Game of Thrones was, in fact, Game of Thrones. The film rights to The Queen of the Tearling were bought months before the book has even been published (which will be midway through July), and the film and its sequels will bring together “Harry Potter dream team” David Hayman and Emma Watson.
Three hundred years in the future, after a catastrophe that as somehow brought our world back to the dark ages, 19 year-old Kelsea Glynn is forced from her secluded forest life to rule as queen over the Tearling country. In a corrupted world where old technology lies nearly forgotten, Kelsea must fight to regain control over her queendom and stand up to the enemies that surround its borders – ageless enemies who can use magic, and will stop at nothing to have the Tearling for their own.
The signs are all in place for The Queen of the Tearling to be one of the best books of the year, if not this century. An epic fantasy emphasising realistic female characters; a huge film adaptation with a huge star in the lead role; one of the highest sums ever paid to a debut author; two more books to follow in an “astonishingly imagined trilogy” – you can imagine my excitement at the chance to review this phenomenon.
Unfortunately, high expectations can lead to even greater disappointments. Johansen’s writing is humourless, mired in dense verbosity. There are large periods of time where nothing at all happens, yet this nothing is described in excruciating detail – it’s as though anything interesting is only mentioned in subtle hints, with the rest of the space filled with as many words as possible so that there’s enough story left to cover in book two. Frankly, I’m tired of reading books that appear to be little more than a set up for a future series. Trilogies and book series can be fantastic but what makes them fantastic is when each book is as strong as the others; when it feels, while reading, as though each could have been a standalone book – if it weren’t for the fact that there is still so much story left to tell that one book simply isn’t enough! Regrettably, that is not the case here. The potential in Johansen’s future-medieval world is endless, and yet the history and implications of such a post-apocalyptic world are only alluded to in the small spaces between dull court dramas and clumsy assassination attempts.
These are superficial flaws. For me, personally, a more worrying problem is the characterisation of Queen Kelsea. The author has stated that in The Queen of the Tearling she wanted to create a strong heroine who isn’t perfect, isn’t beautiful, and who has character flaws usually not associated with female protagonists (a normal young woman, essentially). The lack of strong female characterisation in the arts remains a huge issue, and I completely applaud Johansen’s desire to contradict this. Unfortunately, it seems as though so much effort was put into creating this perfectly “imperfect” character that it has gone full circle, and Kelsea comes across as a fairly typical, bland YA protagonist. Kelsea longs to be beautiful, is envious of those who are naturally beautiful, and yet treats anyone who actually tries to be beautiful with disdain: “How could a woman who looked so old still place so much importance on being attractive? Kelsea saw now that there was something far worse than being ugly: being ugly and thinking you were beautiful”.
Meanwhile, the antagonist (the Red Queen) is portrayed as vain, sadistic and sex-mad. Both queens risk becoming the latest victims of the virgin/whore dichotomy (missrepresentation.org defines this as fitting women characters “neatly into the role of either an innocent, passive, selfless good girl or a hedonistic, morally-void, sensual bad girl”). At least Kelsea doesn’t fit so neatly into the “good-girl” role, being neither passive nor unrealistically selfless.
There is good intent behind Kelsea, and she has a chance to grow into a genuinely strong character. Raw potential must be what Emma Watson saw when she signed up to executive-produce and star in the film adaptation, because I see no other reason for this book to be picked up. I only hope that the much-hinted-at second book is deserving of the hype and acclaim that The Queen of the Tearling has already been getting.