5 out of 5 highly fantastical stars
You ever have that feeling when you get into a book, and you’re like “WHY DIDN’T I READ THIS SOONER?” Well… I had that all over this. When I first heard about this book, the hype was all about Emma Watson being attached to the movie rights. I started hearing reviews, and most of them were bad, or more negative than positive. I was bummed. I wanted to believe. I wanted Emma Watson to have picked a good’un, and so, despite the gorgeous cover (and oh my God, I could eat this with a spoon and cream cheese) I desisted. I was NOT going to buy a subpar book just because it had magnificent endpapers, deckle edges, and gorgeous gold embossed spine with old style swirlies. Then the ebook went on sale for $1.99 and I bought it. Still didn’t read it. Then… the 2nd book in the series came out and was available in hardcover on BookOutlet for a STEAL… so I went looking for more reviews, and found that a lot of my favorite Booktubers actually liked the first one. I bit the bullet (by buying the now out of print first edition used on the cheap, because, hello, built-in book ribbon!) and got the 2nd book from BookOutlet. But enough about my obsessive book purchasing and hardback obsession.
LET’S TALK ABOUT THIS BOOK! There’s so much I can’t tell you about cuz spoilers, but dammit I am going to talk about what I can because I loved so much about this book. It seems to me that the best kinds of fantasy often read like mysteries. Or at least, they have a great element of mystery about them. This had that. When we begin, our main character Kelsea is being picked up by the queen’s guard (her guard, as it turns out, she’s gonna be queen!) and being returned to take up her crown. Her mother died a long time ago, even before Kelsea was sent into hiding. Why was Kelsea sent into hiding? We don’t know. I was surprised at everything we didn’t know, and how much Kelsea didn’t know, and the hints we were given of what she DID know. She doesn’t know who wants to kill her. She doesn’t even know how her mother died.
Now that Kelsea is 19, it’s time for her to return to the keep and take up her crown… if she can. There are multiple forces after her – even her own uncle. Even the men sent to gather her don’t have much faith in getting her to the keep, and from their attitude, they don’t seem to have faith in her. She meets their derision with the right mix of hauteur and gumption. I really liked her. At first, I was worried about the “Oh, I’m a plain girl” thing. She’s not a beauty like her mom, and she describes herself as “thick”. I’m really glad that she remained these things. She didn’t get the beauty makeover, no one in the keep cared about what she looked like…. and there wasn’t romance in this. She had some moments of crushing on a fellow, and she noticed good-looking men, but she was too busy with the crumbling state of her government to be worried about romance, as you would. It was handled really well. It’s clear she’s not a pampered princess, despite being sheltered from the world. She knows her duty to her people and her crown. Let’s just say when she goes out into the world, she is shocked at what she finds.
During her time in hiding, she was fostered by a couple who had sworn fealty to her mother. Barty taught her to fight and Carlin taught her history and government… but she was taught precious little about the actual history of her government and nothing about her mother. There are so many secrets, and it feels like she’s being thrown to the wolves. It’s also really intriguing for the reader, because there is all this talk about “the crossing.” It’s weird, and cool, and I am very jealous of this, as a writer, because Johansen has done what I want to – a fantasy that feels medieval, and yet is actually way in the future, with references to our modern world. There was some kind of crossing that came over an ocean to take pilgrims from out world (or was it a whole-scale immigration? not sure). But how was it done? Don’t know. It’s so intriguing, and i can’t wait to find out more!
The world Kelsea finds waiting for her seems hopeless. There is a massive power in the Kingdom of Mortemense, ruled by an evil Red Queen who has ruled for more than 100 years. She has conquered the other kingdoms but there’s a treaty with the Tearling. But what is the nature of the treaty? Why hasn’t this all powerful Red Queen just crushed the final kingdom? Well, you find out, and it’s what Kelsea has to deal with. It’s pretty freaking amazing as a plot point, and horrific at the same time! I love the magic in this world and how it’s introduced. Kelsea has a blue sapphire that has been on her neck since she was a baby. She also has to deal with the corruption and dissipation her uncle, the Regent, has allowed to flourish. Even her own guard can’t promise that when they get her to the keep, if they get her to the keep, they will remain loyal to her. They swear they won’t be the ones to kill her, but if she can’t step up and be queen and handle all the problems in the court, they can’t go out on a limb for someone with no power. So it seems like she has no allies, just her sapphire and her wits.
We also meet a group of thieves… who may be more than they appear. A mysterious man called “Fetch” is their leader. He seems to know more about Kelsea and her own past than she does. He also has a bone to pick with her uncle, and has made his life and reputation all about poking the Regent with a stick.
One of my favorite characters was Mace, or Lazarus. He’s openly contemptuous of her at first, assuming her bags are full of dolls and hair ribbons, which becomes a running joke. He’s like a super warrior and strikes fear into the rulers of other nations and assassins guilds. One of her other allies is Andalie, who becomes her lady of the chamber, despite being half-Mort (the kingdom of the Red Queen) and who might have powers to see the future.
And enemies… there are so many snakes in the corn crib! Her fat, corrupt, whore-monger of an uncle has been living off the fat of the land and poisoning everything about the Tearling ever since he took up the Regency. He’s incredibly weak, though, but then there is the leader of the Census, Thorne. He is the real power and is said to be aligned with the Red Queen, and he’s an actual a force to deal with. God’s Church is also a factor – an amalgum of Christianity but with a more pragmatic core, the Holy Father will always be on the side of whoever is handing out the money.
We even get to see the Red Queen, who is terrifying, and into some seriously dark shit. At first, we think she’s omnipotent and all-powerful, but we see the cracks in her armor, and I love it. I want more of her! She is so dark and bad, but there are signs that she has some humanity, still. She hopes things will be different in the future, but she’s more than willing to do horrible things to get what she wants. I love that Kelsea is her exact opposite. Kelsea would rather go down doing the right thing than corrupt herself.
Some interesting symbolic things stuck out for me. First, the fact that Lazarus and Fetch are introduced so close together. Lazarus is the name of a biblical figure who rose from the dead. A fetch, according to Wikipedia is “a supernatural double or an apparition of a living person in Irish folklore.” Also: “A sighting of a fetch is generally taken as a portent of its exemplar’s looming death.” Then there is the name of Mortemense, which we are told means “the dead hand”. So. A lot of death symbolism. I wonder what it means. And I want to know more about the crossing!
The writing in this is so good – she knows how to tell a story and keep the reader engaged. I wouldn’t call her prose beautiful, but it doesn’t matter because I was so wrapped up the whole time. Some people have said this has a slower pace. I think that’s coming from people used to reading YA, to be honest, which tends to hurtle along. I am reading this after reading Falling Kingdoms, which was so fast paced it was laughable. I was so satisfied with this – it was like the type of high fantasy I’ve been looking for, ever since I sort of abandoned epic and high fantasy in the early 2000s, when all of it seemed to run together and I was soooo tired of the farm boys and their predictable stories. The characters are complex and well developed. Surprises come out of the woodwork. There is the right mix of politics and adventure. I’m not into stories that are all about politics. I wouldn’t even call this a political fantasy – it’s got enough intrigue and mystery and action to keep it exciting.
So if you were put off by some of the early reviews or weren’t sure about reading this, I heartily recommend!!! I am going right into the next book, so look for that review.