Queen of the Tearling: Strong Women Rule

Here at Fiction Unbound, we are all eagerly anticipating Erika Johansen’s upcoming book, The Invasion of the Tearling, due out from Harper Collins on June 9th this summer. To content ourselves until then, several of us gathered to discuss her first book in the Tearling trilogy, The Queen of the TearlingLet’s start with the things that drew us to this book.

Amanda Boldenow: Kelsea acts like an impulsive 19-year-old with a big heart. But at the same time she is incredibly mature. She doesn’t let her romantic crushes and her desire to be beautiful overpower her sense of purpose, her sense of self. I love Johansen’s social justice stance. It seems like she has ideas about how to fix the world and is using Kelsea, her protagonist, as a spokesperson.

CS Peterson: Kelsea has a big heart and lightening shooting out of her hands. She’s a female hero that is fully human and full of the potential for real power. The fact there are two incredibly powerful women set up as adversaries from the start is a draw. Also, one of the little history blurbs that appear as chapter headings talked about the difference between the Tear Queen - who is Kelsea - and the Red Queen. Kelsea had pity, that seemed to be the difference. So it’s Kelsea’s discovery of her power without the loss of her idealism that hooked me.

CH Lips: I also liked the part where she talks about going into death laughing. That is something a real heroine needs to be able to do. Her absolute courage, that was one of the things that made her a really strong character for me.

Lisa Mahoney: The moment when Kelsea freed the slaves was my favorite. She is on her own, she doesn’t ask anyone’s advice, she just goes with what’s right. It’s not only that she doesn’t ask, she ignores advice from her guard: “If you do this, you’re going to cause a war.” She acts without worrying about the political fallout, what allies or enemies she'll make. That is the most attractive feature about her.

Magic, adventure, mystery, and romance combine in Johansen's epic debut novel. The Queen of the Tearling (2014), by Erika Johansen.

Magic, adventure, mystery, and romance combine in Johansen's epic debut novel. The Queen of the Tearling (2014), by Erika Johansen.

Amanda Boldenow: She also has the benefit of not having seen the consequences as her mother had. The fear isn’t present. All those questions about rule and democracy and the idea of sacrificing a few for greater good aren’t present in Kelsea the way we guess they were for her mom. The mom thought she was making the best decision to protect her people from slaughter. With her first actions Kelsea says, “No! There has to be a better way!” Through her action, she asks her people what they are willing to sacrifice for what is right. It’s a good scene that encapsulates all of that.

Lisa Mahoney: She sticks up for herself. She gets out of her tower; she cuts her hair and rides out like a knight. Her guard tries to stop her; they don’t trust her. I really liked the way she said to Lazarus, “You don’t believe me right now, I’m going to REMEMBER that you didn’t trust me,” the way she took command and stuck with her intuition.

CS Peterson: She’s the queen of her country before she’s anything else. She has that in her character: “I’m the queen. I am going to mess up on my way but I’m still the queen.”

Amanda Boldenow: She had the ability to be confident when she was wrong. An attitude of “OK, I was wrong, it’s not the end of the world!”

CS Peterson: And there were moments where a more stereotypical heroine could have gotten really maudlin. After the big rescue at the end she’s riding with Mace and Mace feels like he has failed her. Kelsea has a moment where she thinks about comforting him, but instead she gives him what for, holds him accountable. I liked her character even more after that.

A good tiara helps. The Leuchtenberg Sapphire Parure Tiara made by the Parisian jeweler Marie-Etienne Nitot in the later half of the eighteenth century.

A good tiara helps. The Leuchtenberg Sapphire Parure Tiara made by the Parisian jeweler Marie-Etienne Nitot in the later half of the eighteenth century.

Amanda Boldenow: At the same time she is human and has real doubts, a bit of the impostor syndrome. She feels unprepared to be queen, feels like she’s faking it. She hides it. She talks about it in her chambers, but when she goes out it’s game face.

CS Peterson: Yes! She has that moment in her chamber with her psychic handmaid who’s very elegant and reserved with Mort blood. She grew up with the same fairy tales in the same books we’ve all read. The elegant handmaid is what a “real” queen “should” look and act like. 

CH Lips: But her response is not to even try to fit in. She has some black dresses made and wears them with armor on top. More courage.

Lisa Mahoney: That was another one of my favorite scenes, when she gets all the guys in a scrum around her with the armor on to go get her crown.

Amanda Boldenow: And she plucks it from a noble lady’s ridiculous hairstyle. Then Mace tells her she has to be supported by nobles, and she says I don’t need the support of assholes. She’s like, “I don’t need to be in your noble club – give me your crown! You get mad, get out!”

CH Lips: There were a bunch of things that bothered me, though. I was not satisfied that she didn’t want to know more, that she didn’t try to find out more about her mother, the jewels, her father. There is information that Kelsea has access to, but I feel like the author is withholding it from me. 

Wormhole - bird's eye view - artists impression of a wormhole as viewed by a free falling observer, Alain, July 2006

Wormhole - bird's eye view - artists impression of a wormhole as viewed by a free falling observer, Alain, July 2006

Lisa Mahoney: It’s the crossing that bugs me. I think we need a couple of sentences about whether the continent is located at the end of a wormhole, or whether it’s over an ocean. We learn that they traveled by ship; the doctors sank. So how can this be happening? A wormhole across the ocean? And if so, how come no one can go back? Do they think they’re never going to have contact with Earth again? 

CS Peterson: Kelsea’s governess was a historian and Kelsea grew up reading books. It’s on the page: “I love books for the love of books.” The author loves fantasy and so does her protagonist. Very meta. The historical blurbs in the chapter headings give the sense of the depth of time, which I like. But if all this crossing history is known, then why is it being withheld from the reader?

CH Lips: If you’re going to do trilogies, you have to bring each book to some sort of conclusion. The conclusion in this one is a conflict that doesn’t arise till the last third of the book. It feels unbalanced. The threatened war with the Red Queen that dominates the first half of the book is kind of suspended in this moment of hesitation that lasts the whole book and is left unresolved. It gives the feeling of a whole novel as prologue. 

Lisa Mahoney: We don’t fully understand what the rules of the world are by the end of this book. Our consensus as Unbound Readers seems to be that we are okay with not knowing what Kelsea doesn’t know, but, especially with the narrative written so tightly from Kelsea’s point of view, we aren’t okay not knowing the background she does know when it affects her choices.

Amanda Boldenow: Is it intentionally ambiguous? Or is there a twist coming in the next books based on what we don’t know? We will just have to wait and see. Come on, June!