Erika Johansen’s debut novel arrives with fanfare, perched on a velvet cushion, topped with a glaring sticker proclaiming her work as an ambitious Game of Thrones meets The Hunger Games brick of a novel. When the titles of not one, but two, recent literary darlings are thrown around, the bar is bound to be set unreasonably high. That, coupled with the announcement of a film adaptation starring and produced by Emma Watson, leaves Johansen with gigantic shoes to fill. It is a daunting task, especially for a first-time novelist, and one that Johansen may have tackled a little prematurely because The Queen of the Tearling is, well … it’s utterly unspectacular.
Set in the future following an unexplained catastrophe, survivors sail across treacherous waters to a foreign land to begin anew. Generations later, the country of the Tearling is forced to bend to the will of the dead Queen’s brother who rules as regent, while the Red Queen, tyrant of the neighbouring country, Mortmesne, ravages the land with the reckoned forces of the Mort army. Nineteen-year-old Kelsea Raleigh, daughter of the deceased Queen Elyssa, raised in exile and inexperienced in all facets of life, is escorted at the beginning of the novel back to the Tearling capital to claim her rightful throne. The situation is direr than she could have ever anticipated after learning of a vile bargain struck between her mother and the Red Queen which enslaves the Tearling population to Mortmesne. The fate of the Tearling is balancing on knife’s edge, and Kelsea must act quickly to remedy the situation.
The book itself, while neither awful nor spectacular, poses a slight conundrum because it reads distinctly like medieval fantasy, yet there are mentions of modern technology as well as pop culture references. It’s as if Johansen gave the wheel of genres a spin before writing the novel and the arrow happened to stop precisely in-between ‘medieval fantasy’ and ‘dystopian’, so she chose to smush them together instead of choosing between the two. It is unknown why civilization regressed to a medieval state, why so little technology was transported during an event known as the Crossing, and why almost all technology is forbidden in the Tearling realm. No information is given as to where this new fantastical land is, if it’s even on Earth, and it is not known where the people sailed from or why they sailed off in the first place. Plenty of information is provided about inconsequential details, like the differing qualities of wood throughout the land, but no substantial knowledge is revealed, and the history of Johansen’s world is only doled out in vague hints that are never fully explained.
Also lacking is a sense of intimacy with the characters. There are point-of-view leaps from chapter to chapter, but the assortment of narrations—ranging from Kelsea herself to the Red Queen to Javel the Gate Guard—are not always necessary because a number of these passages do not reveal much and therefore serve little purpose to advance the plot. Certain chapters inevitably read like fluff, and the changes in perspective seem like a lazy extension of the word count because Johansen doesn’t quite have the skills to tell a fully fleshed-out story exclusively from her protagonist’s point-of-view. Furthermore, when Kelsea is allowed a voice, it is not written with the intimacy nor complexity that should be afforded to a character with whom readers are supposed to sympathize. Kelsea’s story—that of the budding monarch of a diseased nation—is tremendously opportune for political tension, narrative intricacy and poignancy, but The Queen of the Tearling only ever skirts them in passing.
However, the novel is not without potential. The theme of social justice certainly is ambitious and can be executed well if developed further, but Johansen first has to rid the story of overused clichés for the narrative to be more compelling and interesting. At most, Johansen’s novel is entry-level fantasy. Kelsea is a typical do-gooder with adequate accomplishments that make her passably likable, and the plot is just interesting enough to string readers along. The Queen of the Tearling offers nothing refreshing or exciting in terms of diversity and sexuality. It is just another medieval Europe inspired fantasy tale of a plain heroine whose foolish decisions move the plot along at a snail’s pace.
The Queen of the Tearling is very obviously laying the groundwork for a larger story that will unravel in subsequent novels, but that is no excuse for such a lackluster introduction, especially when reader interest is of utmost importance for the series’ success. It won’t matter how great the later novels may be if readers don’t feel compelled to invest any further due to the quality of the first book. If the rest of the trilogy is to truly rival Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games, Johansen needs to bump up the originality because there is nothing to differentiate The Queen of the Tearling from the myriad female-led medieval fantasies that already exist.