The Other Side of the Page: Books and Comics
Emma Watson is Queen of the Tearling
Other Side of the Page is where we spotlight reviews of books and comics worth noting.
This review contains spoilers!
Emma Watson made headlines in 2014 with her speech on gender equality at the United Nations. She drew some criticism for failing to be all things to all people, but when much of the world is badly misinformed about basic human rights, an Introduction to Feminism lecture is a public service. We can argue endlessly about the meaning of words ending in “ism,” but the main thing we should care about is gross violations of human agency. And on that score, I’m convinced Watson does care. So does Kelsey Raleigh Glynn, the protagonist of The Queen of the Tearling, the debut novel by author Erika Johansen. Watson purchased the rights to produce and star in a movie based on the book,the first in a trilogy about the 19 year old hidden princess who must assume the Tearling throne and lead it against its treacherous and powerful neighbor, the Mortesme, lead by the evil enchantress known as the Red Queen.
Brought to foster parents as a baby, Kelsey has been carefully hidden deep in the forest for decades. Kelsey was Raised with the knowledge that when she turned 19, she would be whisked away to the Tearling, where she will be marked for death by her uncle,the Regent. The novel opens with the arrival of the men who will take Kelsey to New London. These knights are the remnants of the Queen’s Guard, those whose sworn oath to Kelsey’s late mother cannot be broken until they complete the task of bringing Kelsey to the Keep, the royal residency.
Kelsey Raleigh is destined to be Queen of the Tearling. That is, if she can survive the trip to the Keep, make it to the throne occupied by the corrupt and women-abusing Regent, win the loyalty of her mother’s guards, stay one step ahead of the meddlesome Church and manage not to get killed by the Red Queen.
This is a tightly constructed universe that feels wholly real and faintly familiar. You can easily mistake the setting for medieval Europe, with its horse-drawn carriages, knights and weapons, if it were not for the fact that the world is vaguely apocalyptic. Indeed it takes place in a distant future of our own world, where survivors of what may have been an environmental disaster have fled to New Europe where they have lived for several centuries without modern conveniences.
The entire history of New Europe does not appear in this book. Instead we get bits and pieces of it, because we are viewing it from the perspective of the world’s inhabitants rather than from a storyteller anxious to spill the entire story in one book. For me this was a satisfying narrative structure. It also puts the reader on almost equal ground with Kelsey, who grew up completely isolated from the world she must now save. Her questions are our questions. We wonder why most books were lost in the Crossing and how Kelsey’s foster mother came to have a houseful of them. We wonder whether the mysterious sapphire Kelsey wears around her neck has magical properties, and whether they are connected to the Red Queen. We wonder about the member of the Queen’s Guard known as the Mace and why he seems to be so much more than simply a physical enforcer.
A Dark Fairy Tale
I’m a big fan of the kind of anti-heroism that has come to dominate television, movies and books. I run a podcast that is literally devoted to an Evil Queen with a Heart of Gold; I loved Maleficent; I think Tony Soprano remains the most complex anti-hero ever written for the screen (Heisenberg be damned). However, as those stories become less complex and less well written, I’m beginning to find them tiring. That’s one reason this novel was appealing to me. Kelsey is neither a saccharine hero with no flaws, nor a weak princess waiting for her prince. But she is a true hero, one you might see in fables or fairy tales. She sees things that are morally indefensible and immediately acts. By the novel’s end she is learning to be less reactive and more strategic, which sets up the sequels rather well.
Despite its fairytale-like inspiration, the novel also departs from the conventions of traditional fairy tales. Kelsey’s mother, the late Queen of the Tearling, is not an angelic presence like the mothers of Snow White or Aurora. The Queen was no benevolent sovereign beloved by her people, imbued with otherworldly grace and judgment. Instead, she was regarded as an airhead defined by her looks, with a reputation for promiscuity to boot. Indeed, the identity of Kelsey’s father is a closely guarded secret. This is both frustrating and liberating for young Kelsey, who is forced to rely on the beat of her own heart to figure out what’s right for her kingdom. This gives Kelsey room to develop her own personality without trying to live up to anyone’s the lofty ideals. Whether Kelsey’s mother was actually as dense as history would have us believe is a question that will almost certainly be addressed in future books. The Queen’s Guard refuses to tell Kelsey anything about her mother, leaving her frustrated and grasping for any shred of information that will fill in the pieces of the puzzle. Meanwhile, we know that the late Queen made a terrible bargain to protect her people from the Red Queen – a truly terrible bargain that I will not spoil here – but it’s that very bargain that Kelsey decides she must immediately undo, consequences be damned.
I won’t criticize the book for portraying Kelsey’s mother as some kind of beautiful idiot. History regards her as such, but we don’t know the truth, and the truth is not as it seems. This is a book where everyone has a hidden past, from the dashing outlaw the Fetch (think Once Upon a Time’s Captain Hook if he were actually allowed to be a pirate), to the Captain of the Queen’s Guard, the Mace (nicknamed Lazarus for reasons that have been withheld), to Kelsey’s foster parents, (whose actual identities are surprising and pivotal).
When it comes to fantasy as a genre, I’m far from an expert, so take my review with the appropriate grains of salt. Though the book is a fantasy, its pages do not brim with descriptions of magic, dragons, mythical creatures, prophesies… which is not to say that none of these things exist in the world of the Tearling. Magic is there but like Kelsey, we do not know or understand quite what it is yet. We do not know the full powers of the Mort Queen. We know of her deeds, both great and terrible, and we know that she feels Kelsey’s ascension to the throne as if it is a poison boiling up inside her own skin. But the author so far has managed to avoid the trap of springing magical solutions onto every problem and every page. This is a character study disguised as an adventure story, which produces a page turner.
Harper Collins marketed The Queen of the Tearling as a young adult novel but I think that’s a complete misnomer. That Kelsey is a teen doesn’t make this book a young adult novel, or even one in the confusing and newly minted “New Adult” genre. It’s a fantasy novel with fairy tale, dystopian and literary tendencies. In other words, it’s what used to be called “a novel.”