Title: The Tearling trilogy:
The Queen of the Tearling (2014)
The Invasion of the Tearling (2015)
The Fate of the Tearling (2016)
Author: Erika Johansen
Read: 1st-6th Feb | 6th-11th Feb | 11th-19th Feb
Genre: fantasy; dystopian; young-adult
Rating: 5/5 | 4/5 | 3.75/5
Spanning three books, Erika Johansen’s Tearling trilogy tells the story of Kelsea Glynn, the exiled Queen of the Tearling who has been raised in secret for many years in order to protect her and her family’s claim to the crown of the kingdom. The land of Tearling represents a utopian project – the mastermind behind it was William Tear, a man who believed in a socialist system which he thought would lead to a more just and happy society, having experienced quite the opposite in America. In many ways, Tearling treads the boundary between fantasy and dystopian, for William Tear’s utopian society is (as is often the case) rarely that simple. As someone who enjoys exploring the political and social ramifications of how dystopias happen as opposed to the actual dystopia itself, the Tearling books were right up my alley, and might just be up yours too.
“The future was only disasters of the past, waiting to happen anew.”
Each book simultaneously moves the story forward as well as backwards, delving deeper into the past to discover, by the third book, what lead William Tear to make a dangerous crossing in the hope of finding a new land upon which to start his socialist colony and what went so wrong afterwards to lead to the situation which opens the first book in the trilogy. Through the journey the tone changes – book one appears straight-up medieval fantasy as Kelsea moves onto her throne and starts to try to “correct” the problems she sees in her kingdom; book two moves the story further into young-adult dystopian (with some of its tropes, admittedly), as interspersed flashbacks depict life in dystopian America which Tear objected to; and book three ties the past, present, and future together to tell the story of what happened after Tear landed in the “new world” and the mistakes of the past which are being repeated in this future, when people should know better.
“The Fetch threw back his head and roared with laughter. He placed a friendly hand on Kelsea’s back, making her skin prickle. ‘Tear Queen, you’ll either be dead within a week or you’ll be the most fearsome ruler this kingdom has ever known. I see no middle ground.’ “
Kelsea is the tough female character that every young-adult dystopian boasts nowadays but she isn’t necessarily the most well equipped of heroines at the start of the novel. Rather than focusing on fighting or some such like, her adoptive parents have ensured that she has been equipped with all the necessary mental and moral skills to rule, as is her eventual destiny. Though Kelsea might not be well-versed on riding a horse or wielding a sword, she is versed on diplomacy and is intellectually very educated – in a kingdom which has banned the printing press, this is obviously an act of rebellion and immediately sets her apart from the simpering court. Her concerns are constantly the comparison of her to her mother, a ruler who was beautiful but inefficient and allowed tyranny of a neighbouring kingdom to hold her own people in thrall to this enemy – Kelsea is constantly worried about being seen as similar to her mother, a mother she never even knew. The internal struggles that she feels somehow feel universal, as she worries about not looking as pretty as her mother, or not being as charming or gracious – she worries that she is somehow letting her kingdom down, or disappointing her people, simply because she is not a perfect, beautiful, strong ruler. Her development, therefore, is paramount to the unfolding of the trilogy and one of the strongest elements of the novels. Likewise, Kelsea’s guards become an integral part of the story once she moves into the castle and begins to rule – for fear of spoilers I will not say too much but I greatly enjoyed the character development of Mace/Lazarus and Pen in particular, even when I hated what Erika Johansen was doing to her characters, I was rooting for them in the end.
“This is how women are trained to stay indoors, she thought, the idea echoing in her mind like a gravesong. This is how women are trained not to act.”
The world that Johansen portrays is dark, without a doubt. I was mildly surprised to see this marked as young-adult on Goodreads because the themes the book explores are difficult and probably a little too heavy for younger readers. Topics such as people trafficking, sadism, and paedophilia are at the front and centre of book one and exploring these in a fantasy setting does not make them any less relevant or shocking to readers. It’s also difficult to find a state institution in Tearling that isn’t, in some way, corrupt – religion is used to justify many a heinous act, the crown doesn’t protect its people from exploitation, and the concept of justice is sketchy, to say the least. This is a cruel and twisted world that is built around Kelsea – and the worst bit about it is that the medieval fantasy-esque tone is slowly deconstructed into a sort of dystopia; this is our world but it has regressed into a recognisably medieval setting – why this has happened is the question that is answered over the course of the second and third books.
“The Fetch was intelligent, diabolically so, and intelligent people devised intelligent cruelties. That was where the Red Queen had always excelled.”
I hated the ending, make no mistake about that. I found the third book, and the direction the trilogy took, disarming and a little bit disappointing personally. But I can appreciate that it was a fitting ending for the themes and tone of Johansen’s trilogy – it’s not a happy, idealist ending, and I’m not even entirely sure what the ending was for Kelsea, when all was said and done. However, I know that whilst I didn’t enjoy the way the trilogy was ended, I appreciated it for what it was. If that makes any sense? I’m very conflicted about it still, as you can probably tell. The fangirl in me immediately searched for fanfiction to try to “correct” the ending. Above all, though, Tearling’s ending frustrated me, and that’s good –it’s about time that a fantasy/dystopian novel behaved in a way I did not expect!
“”Carlin often said that history was everything, for it was in man’s nature to make the same mistakes over and over.”
Throughout the trilogy runs this overriding and underlying theme of past mistakes not being corrected, or learnt from. As Erika Johansen so astutely illustrates, the problem with past mistakes is that as generations age, mistakes so often seem relegated to the past and the younger/upcoming generation forget (or are unaware) of the past. In this way, the entire idea of utopia is contested, as Johansen suggests that no generation ever learns from the past because it’s just that – the past – and so we, as humanity, are doomed to repeat in a vicious cycle that is not easily broken. William Tear might move his people to a new land in the hope of developing a new and better society but humans are (and always will be) fundamentally human – this isn’t a positive, life-affirming sort of message to take away but it is an important one, one that, despite my gripes about the third book, has cemented the trilogy firmly in my favourite books of the genre. Thank you, Erika Johansen, for a fresh, more developed, and more thoughtful take on the dystopian genre, it’s about time.
“Did people grown and learn at all as the centuries past? Or was humanity merely like the tide, enlightenment advancing and then retreating as circumstances shifted? The most defining characteristic of the species might be lapse.”