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!

Is The Circle by Dave Eggers worth reading? | Book Review

Copy of YOU ARE SIMPLY THE (1)

Title: The Circle
Author: Dave Eggers
My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Fiction (Dystopia)
Audiobook note: The Circle‘s main character is a woman. Soooo I’m still trying to figure out why it was narrated by a man. It doesn’t make sense. I wasn’t even sure I would be able to enjoy the audiobook, because Dion Graham honestly sounds like the voice of Aslan (which definitely doesn’t fit the book’s tone). After a while though, I got used to it—plus Graham’s “valley girl” interpretation of Annie’s voice is actually hilarious.
Is it worth reading? If you’re a sucker for anything dystopia, you’ll probably enjoy The Circle. If your only foray into dystopian fiction is The Hunger Games, I’d pass on this one. What I enjoyed most about The Circle was how it built on the dystopia genre and compared to other dystopian books, and not so much for its merits as a stand-alone book.

 

>>Minor spoilers ahead<<

In the spirit of full disclosure, the only reason I picked up this book was because I saw The Circle movie trailer.

Emma Watson with an American accent? Tom Hanks as a villain?! Creepy dystopian universe eerily similar to our own?!?!?!?

Yeah, I was in.

So I popped over to my local library (tip #2 in my 4 tips for keeping your 2017 reading goals post) and picked up the audiobook.

This is dystopia for our current era. I’m looking forward to more in this genre to come.

The Weird Stuff

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. There were many things I disliked about this book, to the point that it made me wonder if that was the point. Maybe Eggers is intentionally trying to create a certain revulsion in the reader so that we recognize the ultimate message behind the book (read more under The Good Stuff).

Sheep Characters

I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book from the perspective of one of the sheep.

By that, I mean that Mae Holland believes everything the Circle tells her hook, line, and sinker. Even when trusted people in her life challenge her to think critically about the company she works for, she rejects their ideas as stupid, ignorant, and selfish.

The speed with which the world adopts the tyranny of the Circle was a little unrealistic to me, but not too unrealistic that I completely rejected it. I was spooked by how mindlessly and willingly the characters were willing to give up their freedoms—without even realizing it.

(More on this under Critical Thinking is Critically Important)

Mae is Freaking Annoying

What an obnoxious head to be stuck inside.

I’m really curious how Emma Watson is going to play her in the movie. Mae accepts everything without question, ridicules and hates anyone who questions her wisdom or choices, and cares only about the power she has over people or the way they make her feel.

She is petty, vain, people-pleasing, self-centered, and thoroughly unlikable. She is completely asleep to the dangers of the world around her. Listening to her internal dialogue was agonizing at times. But what made it worse was that I was also sort of rooting for her at the same time.

Incongruous Sex Scenes

In general, I’m not a fan of sex scenes. But I have no problem just skipping over them, and normally they don’t ruin my reading experience. I can still find a lot to love about a book aside from the parts I skip over (like in Game of Thrones or Pillars of the Earth).

But for some reason, I never saw the sex coming in this book. It just seemed so oddly out of place with the whole theme/tone of the story to have kind of descriptive sex thrown in there 5-6 times.

I don’t know if Eggers was trying to highlight the vast gulf between the digital and physical at the Circle or what, but it seemed weirdly incongruous with the rest of the book.

The Good Stuff

While I definitely didn’t love The Circle, there were some redeemable points. If nothing else, it served as a warning, and it’s always, always a good idea to examine warnings.

Especially when we live in a world where the plot of The Circle seems plausible.

These were my main takeaways (aka The Good Stuff):

Great World Building

One thing I loved (and which I think is critical for a good dystopian novel) is solid world building. If I’m going to buy into a futuristic, oppressive society, a believable, well-constructed world is key.

The Circle excels at creating a believable setting.

Maybe we’re just used to the idea of sprawling tech company campuses, but I think Eggers takes it to the next level. I could picture going to work with Mae every day and experiencing the things she experienced. Even the sometimes-tedious descriptions of her moment-by-moment movements helped highlight Mae’s increasingly frantic mental world.

Critical thinking is critically important

Every program or initiative started by the Circle was good in theory: microchips to prevent children from being kidnapped, programs to prevent racial profiling, surveys to ensure quality products and services, etc.

But no Circler seems to recognize how each new, exciting advancement is another infringement upon personal freedom and liberty. Every initiative is cloaked under the guise of safety, wellness, and acceptance.

The groupthink was so strong and the ideas were so “good” for society that it’s nearly impossible for any person to disagree without being branded as outlier, anti-social, or luddite.

When society loses the ability to constructively critique itself, tyranny slips in the door.

Disagreement does not equal hate

The more the Circle takes over, the more that negativity, disagreement, or dissent is punished.

I think this reminder is especially poignant in the wake of the 2016 election season. It’s easy to assume someone who disagrees with you hates everything you stand for, or even worse, hates you. But in reality, disagreement is valuable and necessary for a thriving society. It drives us to look at problems from all angles, and it reminds us that each person is unique and brings their own perspective to the the table.

When we seek to erase all disagreement, we encourage a culture of robots.

The dangers of seeking approval in a digital world

The more likes, followers, and approval ratings Mae receives, the better she feels about herself. She gets an endorphin rush from the instantaneous affirmation the Circle encourages.

And the more she’s treated as an object (albeit, a loved object) by her fans, the more she treats other people as pawns in her attempt to feel loved, valued, and approved.

This is a real problem we’re facing right now.

Social media makes it incredibly easy to start basing our value and our worth as human beings on the impersonal approval of people we have no connection to in real life.

The Circle shows us the danger when every action we take is categorized, ranked, rated, and evaluated. When our performance in the job force, the classroom, and the social realm are ranked and rewarded, it’s easy to slip into a mindset where we believe arbitrary numbers correlate to real things like value. It’s a dead-end search that can never be satisfied.

State-imposed morality is bad, bad, bad

The flaw with the goals of the Circle is that Eamon Bailey believes he can eradicate sin and change human nature by instilling “checks and balances” that will ensure everyone is intimidated, harassed, or forced into perfect behavior.

And it’s impossible. You can’t force people to make moral choices and you can’t force people to be perfect.

Although a perfect society would (theoretically) eliminate pain, suffering, fear of the unknown, and heartbreak, it would also eliminate choice. It would rob us of the agency to do good, to love others, and to make mistakes and learn from them. It would remove the ability to heal.

There’s a biblical application here as well: Agency means we have the choice to move toward God or away from Him … He didn’t make us into robots who are forced to choose Him.

Is The Circle Worth Reading?

Either this book is kind of crappy, or Eggers is doing something powerful here. I’m honestly not sure. Maybe I’m reading too much into it … or maybe not.

But that’s what I love about reading. To me, a book isn’t wasted if it teaches or reminds me of something powerful and true.

So is it worth reading?

I’d say yes if you like dystopian novels. If not, some of the subtler themes may not be worth slogging through the droning of Mae’s sheep-like mind or the petty behavior or the sort-of-disappointing twist at the end. If you don’t like this genre, it might just end up on your Did Not Finish pile.

 

Have you read The Circle? What did you think? Will you go see the movie? Leave a comment below!