The Queen of the Tearling Series | Book Review

Titles: The Queen of the Tearling, The Invasion of the Tearling, The Fate of the Tearling
Author: Erika Johansen
My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Fantasy
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.

I’ve been on a bit of a fantasy kick lately. After the Tearling series, I read Uprooted by Naomi Novik (oh my word. so. good.), and I’m currently reading Six of Crows.

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.

The Good

Kelsea

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 Villains

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.

The Bad

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).

Unanswered Questions

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.

Touchy Subjects

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.

That Ending

>>SPOILERS AHEAD<<

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!

On almost hitting my reading goals, favorite books of 2017, and more

What a turbulent, change-filled, and exhausting year 2017 has been.

Besides the craziness happening in the world at large, this has been one of the most difficult years of my life. When I started this blog back in January of last year (here’s my first review!), I had no clue how much things would change in my personal life, and how little blog writing I would actually get done this year.

My husband and I moved across the country. I spent a stressful summer looking for a job while working from home (torture for an extrovert). I started graduate school. We moved again. I started a new job. My husband started his own business. I’m tired just writing all of that.

Basically, life has been bananas (and I mean B-A-N-A-N-A-S) for months.

And here, on the fresh cusp of a new year, I finally feel like the dust may slowly be starting to settle. The stress about the business is still there. The endless pile of to-do’s are still there. The dirty dishes are ALWAYS there.

But it’s difficult for me to feel too pessimistic at the start of a new year. Something about a new year feels like a fresh start…a new chance to be a better version of myself, to grow and improve, and to reflect on what did and didn’t work last year.

What didn’t work: Moving twice within six months. Never again.

What did work: Reading more books, finding a library job I love, and taking the plunge into grad school in a field that excites me.

Still in progress: Forming community and finding new friends in a new place.

Today, I hope you have a chance to reflect on 2017 and what obstacles you have overcome in your own life this year. Last January, I never would have imagine how much upheaval we would experience this year. If I had known, I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to even begin.

But here I am, still alive somehow, on the other end of 2017. You can do it too. I hope you have a truly marvelous 2018!

2017

So close…

On to book matters:

For 2017, I had a goal of reading 40 books. Maybe something about not having friends or lots of free time this summer helped me go past my goal goal until it was a week before January 1, and I was at 48 books. I wanted sooooo badly to hit 50 (I’ve never read 50!), but having family in town (among other excuses), meant that I was finishing my last book of the year, On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder last night at 11:30 p.m.

I only read 49.

The anal part of me is dying inside.

I know I should be glad that I could read nine books over my initial goal, but of course all I can think about is that one measly little book I somehow couldn’t manage to finish. Sigh.

Next year.

Best of the best of 2017

I read so many good books this year. So many. Here are some highlights:

  • I discovered Louise Penny’s wonderful Chief Inspector Gamache series.
  • I chipped 4 (almost 5!) more Agatha Christie books off my lifetime list.
  • I only read two Jane Austen adaptations instead of the usual five.
  • I read 20 nonfiction books—a new record for this fiction lover!
  • I even read one short story collection—The Mistletoe Murder by P.D. James—and discovered I don’t hate short stories!

Since choosing one favorite book is obviously impossible, these were my favorite books by genre. Apparently I only read three genres:

Fiction

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The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Not since The Lord of the Rings have I found a fantasy that so captured my imagination like this one. I love the format of the story too—as Kvothe tells the story in flashbacks, it keeps you itching to know more. Part hero epic, part action adventure, part love story, Rothfuss’ world feels as real as Middle Earth. It’s a huge book, but it reads fast.

 

Honorable mentions:

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Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

I didn’t expect to like this one as much as I did. I honestly thought it was going to be something like desperate housewives with petty, shallow characters crying in their Mercedes convertibles and fighting over popularity. I was so wrong. I loved how this book highlights the secret burdens and pains we all face. The twist at the end was great too! Don’t go in expecting a full-fledged mystery or thriller. It’s a little of both but not fully either.

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Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

I’ve already talked about what I love about this book over here, but if you haven’t picked this one up yet, you should. The audio version is also fantastic. I laughed out loud and also was forced to think about my own assumptions following scandal.

 

Nonfiction

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Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren

This was such a readable and thought-provoking work. I won’t rehash everything I’ve already said about this one, but I really recommend you pick this up if you’re searching for significance in the everyday, ordinary parts of your life. This book is a reminder that we can be worshipful even in the most seemingly insignificant moments.

Bonus: It’s Christianity Today’s 2018 Book of the Year!

 

Honorable mentions:

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Booked by Karen Swallow Prior

I actually had Dr. Prior for a class in college, and I remember this (her first book) coming out. But it was only this year that I picked it up for myself, and I am so glad that I did! Dr. Prior reflects on different points in her life and the books that shaped those times. I loved the combination of memoir + love letter to reading. She also has some seriously important insights on how reading is one of the greatest way we can grow and mature. (I was even inspired to finally give Great Expectations a try!)

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The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron & Suzanne Stabile

I loved learning about the Enneagram from this book. I’ve reflected a lot this year on my type and what role fear (the Type 6’s great struggle) plays in my life. Before reading this book, I didn’t realize how much fear impacted my choices. Read this book if you want to know yourself better! (And read here for a more detailed review.)

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Evicted by Mathew Desmond

I couldn’t have said it any better than Roxanne Gay when she reviewed this book: “The brutal truth of poverty in America is far more devastating than any fiction ever could be.” This book was eye-opening, tragic, and amazing. There is so much I didn’t know or understand about eviction until I read this book. I was angry and enlightened. This is an incredibly important read.

Bonus: It won the Pulitzer Prize and was named a Top 10 Best Book by the New York Times Book Review in 2016.

 

Mystery

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The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

I have read so many great mystery books this year, but this one stands out as the one that surprised me the most. I can’t wait to read more Agatha Christie in 2018! Read more here about how I changed my mind about Miss Marple.

 

Honorable  mentions:

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Still Life by Louise Penny

I have Anne Bogel over at Modern Mrs Darcy and What Should I Read Next? to thank for convincing me to try Louise Penny. I love this series! Especially now that we live in a small mountain town, I feel right at home in Three Pines as Chief Inspector Gamache solves mysteries and reflects on the simple pleasures of life. I also appreciate how Penny wrestles with human nature and analyzes her character’s fears, joys, and struggles throughout the series. I’m on book four now and I can’t wait to read book five!

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Death Comes to Pemberly by P.D. James

This was my first P.D. James book. I watched the mini-series on Netflix and enjoyed it, so I decided to pick up the book. I’ve never read a Jane Austen retelling that is also a mystery, so this was an interesting departure. It’s a light, fun read if you enjoy imagining the world of Pride and Prejudice after the Darcy wedding.