THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING, BY ERIKA JOHANSEN (Book 1 of The Queen of the Tearling)
As I understand it, this is a debut novel. I bought it because of the cover: it's pretty and just pretentious enough to get me interested. I didn't read the blurb or any reviews of it before I read it, and I'm glad for that. I'm reading the many bad reviews this book has, and although I don't agree with the poor rating (I thought it was pretty good) I sympathize with their disappointment. Whoever decided to say this book was a cross between The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones should be fired. If you have to compare it to something, I'd say it's something like the Farseer trilogy minus the dragons (at least in the first book). Also, it's most definitely not Young Adult, not just because of the subjects it contains, but for the writing style and setting; it's High Fantasy, or Epic. If you read this expecting something light and breezy like Young Adult Fantasy, you probably won't finish it.
Synopsis: Kelsea is a 19-year-old girl raised in isolation who's the heir to the Tearling throne. The Tear is a small and apparently insignificant kingdom in a strange land. Kelsea will have to prove herself to her subjects, close and far, free herself from the shadow of her mother and battle a mysterious and dangerous adversary.
Overall enjoyment: Like I said, pretty good. I wasn't victim of the bad marketing, so I wasn't disappointed when I read it. There are a few typical debut novel problems, but hopefully she will get over them as she gets more experience. Overall, very entertaining and promising for her next books, in this series and out of it.
Plot: Well done, within a few limits. The first plot twist got me completely off guard. But, like many debut novels, it's a bit naïve. I would even go as far as to say that the plot twist got me off guard BECAUSE the plot had been so naïve so far. Again, this is something that will improve a lot with time, as she gets more experience.
Characters: She avoids describing their personalities outright, preferring to show them through their actions. She does make very exaggerated us of other characters' impressions for that, though. Once again, a bit naïve and manicheist at times, especially with the secondary characters, but overall very good. I especially liked the fact that Kelsea thinks she's plain AND SHE REALLY IS. I'm so sick of this trope of the girl who simply has low self-esteem, but is really beautiful. I'll confess, when Kelsea says she thinks she's plain, I rolled my eyes, bracing myself for it. But then, all the other characters think she's plain too, AND IT DOESN'T FUCKING MATTER. She's still the kickass righteous queen, and everybody bows down before her, and I want to jump up and down in happiness.
World/setting: Fascinating. At first, it seems to be a medieval-type fantasy, but then you start getting hints that this is actually the future, after something called the Crossing. And this setting is particularly well made: right at the beginning of the book, you have the medieval atmosphere with the way people behave and dress, and all the weapons, armor and horses, but the way they talk to each other is a little bit off. Just when you start discounting it as careless writing, you find out that it's the future, so of course the speech patterns would be different from what you'd expect. (Yeah, sure, it still might be careless writing, but I chose to believe it's not.) Many of the negative reviews I've read complained of the world-building, saying that it's not explained enough, but FOR FUCK'S SAKE, PEOPLE, IT'S THE FIRST BOOK IN A TRILOGY! Hopefully, all those things will be explained later. Again, THIS IS NOT YA, AND SHOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN MARKETED AS SUCH! You are supposed to find out how the world works as you read the books. (Especially since I have a suspicion that what happened during the Crossing and all that will have a bearing on future plot twists. So, really, she can't just deliver the gold right at the start like that, can she?)
Writing style: If you know that you're reading Epic Fantasy, then it's very light and easy to read, quite pleasant. (If you think you're reading YA Fantasy, then I suppose it would be heavy and convoluted.) There are a few things that bothered me, however. First, maybe the speech patterns that don't match a medieval-based fantasy, that still might be careless writing instead of brilliance. Second, she doesn't really pay a lot of attention to detail. Right off the top of my head I can remember one instance where a character was on his knees (it was the priest, I think, while talking to the Holy Priest) and the narration says that he looks down at his sandals. If he did look at his sandals, he would have to turn around and look behind him. I understand that that was not what she intended, but she should have been more careful with this kind of thing; it happens a lot more than it should. And this lack of attention to detail does not bode well for the future volumes of a series. Hopefully, she'll pay more attention to plot elements than to little details like that.
Representation: In this book there isn't much of it, but maybe there will be in future ones. She does mention darker skinned people in other regions and homosexuality. But there is only one dark skinned (very) secondary character among many others that are, presumably, white. And although the Church seems to have assembled a brigade to fight against homosexuality, there are no active characters who are openly queer.
Political correctness: On top of the lack of representation that I mentioned above, she also distributes sexual abuse lavishly, without what I would consider the proper care. In some instances, it's even completely unnecessary, and it seems she's only mentioning it for the shock value. That bothered me a lot. On the other hand, like I mentioned before, Kelsea is plain and fat, and she's not lessened by it. Kelsea is VERY judgmental of people she thinks as "vain", and that might be considered a problem, but I'll give Johansen the benefit of the doubt in here (especially since I didn't during Kelsea's characterization, and she proved me wrong). We're still seeing this character as a teenager, someone who can only see the world as black and white; she's desperate to be approved of and to not become her mother. On my part, I'm desperately hoping Kelsea will mature and lose her naivité and childishness in the books to come.
I'm probably being too lenient on this book because of all the bad reviews I've seen of it. But I really don't think it was bad; it was, in fact, much better than most. There are lots of nice details, like the recurring theme of history repeating itself coupled with the medieval setting in the future. And (this is the last time I say this, I promise) most of the bad things can be expected to improve once Johansen matures as a writer. So this is an entertaining read and it shows a lot of promise for her future works.
Lastly, THEY'RE GONNA PUT EMMA WATSON TO PLAY KELSEA? WTF?? Kelsea is plain and fat, and the fact that her appearance doesn't matter is the most revolutionary thing about this book. How exactly are you going to put Emma Watson as this character? This is such bullshit.
Up next: Song of the Beast, by Carol Berg