A Kind of Magic – Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

the-queen-of-the-tearlingAs this book is soon to be made into a film starring Emma Watson, it’s bound to attract some hype. Much of it, I imagine, will be undeserved. This is perhaps an unfair thing to say; the book is very readable and is contains some strong female characters, something of a rarity in the genre. Unfortunately I found the setting to be half-baked, and the story itself derivative.

I must confess to not being a fan of fantasy novels set after an apocalypse, where remnants of old technology remain. QotT isn’t quite like that. The escape from our world is acknowledged and discussed and there is a lot more old-age stuff lying around than just lethal weapons. ‘The Crossing’ occurred some unspecified length of time (but at least several generations) ago. Some skills have survived, as have a few artefacts, and some books (Rowling is inevitably name-checked). Crucially (and specifically) medical supplies are not.  So. This is some sort of cracked Earth, where most of the of the denizens escaped to from…? Where else? The USA.

The book is let down by its world building. I can’t think of single part of the novel that is enhanced by this reforged Earth approach over just making it a standard fantasy secondary world. Setting the novel on a future Earth adds nothing but detracts much. I immediately began to question the structure of the world. In a standard fantasy novel how the world became how it is, is left largely to arm waving. It doesn’t tend to matter if it stands up to scrutiny because nobody looks that hard. Here though we all have a common point of reference, Earth, and now all the minutiae of governance and provenance of artefacts and language becomes an issue. I found myself questioning whether the state of Tear was economically viable (I suspect not), something I rarely worry about when reading a fantasy novel. Even the existence of magic in the novel suddenly becomes questionable. ‘Magic? but it’s Earth…’ This strand may, of course, be resolved in subsequent novels. Curiously, though the novel’s characters came from the USA there are almost no ethnic minorities. There is even a line about how the main character has only ever seen one black person. This is a problematic and frankly baffling omission.

The story itself, whilst not a new one, is strong. Kelsea Glynn is a princess in exile; hidden as a baby by her mother, the queen. On Kelsea’s nineteenth birthday, the queen’s guard arrive at her house to return her to her rightful place as the new Queen of the Tearling. Her uncle has ruled in her stead for 19 debauched, corrupt years. The kingdom slid into ruin, even sending a monthly tribute of slaves to neighbouring Mortmense. The kingdom of Mortmense is ruled by the Red Queen; a baby eating monarch cut straight from Grimm fairytale cloth. Kelsea must gain the trust of her guards, her nobles and above all the people of Tear. With the Red Queen on the warpath and any number of factions likely to benefit from her death, this is a tall order.

So the story is a classic, young and inexperienced monarch must win hearts and minds of the people, tale. Kelsea is a strong character; an idealist, yet pragmatic. She is not just a woman who behaves like a man, written by an author under the misapprehension that this makes for robust characterisation. She’s a tough independent female of the type so rarely found in fantasy novels. She operates in a world dominated by men, though there are other strong female characters around her who back her up. I was impressed and refreshed by Kelsea Glynn.  There several occasions where her strong social conscience must give way to the practical aspects of being a ruler. I liked this facet of the book. In a world where we clamour for our leaders to ‘do the right thing’ all the time, Johansen shows that this isn’t always possible, no matter how obvious an answer might seem from the outside.

Queen of the Tearling is a solid readable fantasy, but there is little to set it apart from the field. Compared with Richard Ford’s Steelhaven books, it’s extremely ordinary. I’ve read the book and I have terrible feeling that the most interesting thing I can say about it, is that Hermione Granger is going to be in the film adaptation. That doesn’t do much as recommendation to read it. I might read the sequels but such is the height of my to-be-read pile, it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever make it to them.

Many Thanks to Leanne at Transworld for sending me a copy of the book. 


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