“Tearling” trilogy – Erika Johansen

“This, I think, is the crux of evil in this world, Majesty: those who feel entitled to whatever they want, whatever they can grab.”
— “The Invasion of the Tearling”

Okay, I have a lot to say about the Tearling trilogy, so let’s just get right into it. In first book of this series, The Queen of the Tearling, we meet Kelsea Glynn, who was raised in a secluded cottage by her adoptive parents reading a novel a day, exploring the outdoors, but most of all, learning how to be a fair and just queen. Now that she has turned nineteen, she must now ascend to the Tearling throne. This fantasy-dystopia hybrid begins with Kelsea taking the treacherous trip across her poverty-plagued nation alongside her loyal Queen’s Guard to the Keep, the only place in the world where she will be safe to begin her rule.

Upon her arrival in New London, however, she finds out that her mother, the previous queen, made a deal with neighbouring enemy nation Mortsmesne to keep the Tearling safe — one which goes against Kelsea’s deepest moral convictions. Her first test as the new Queen.

I was recommended this trilogy by a friend because Kelsea is one of her favourite characters of all time, and honestly, I can absolutely see why. She’s well-developed and imperfect in highly realistic ways, while still being loveable and worth cheering for. Over the course of the series (especially books two and three, The Invasion of the Tearling and The Fate of the Tearling), I got extremely attached to Kelsea.

Unfortunately, this main character is one of few saving graces for a series that while filled with promising ideas and enjoyable prose, was riddled with massive problems and huge lost potential. In fact, when looking up online reviews of the series, I was personally shocked by the number of reviewers I saw who felt that this series, which has a decent amount of online hype, was grossly overrated. For the most part, I can’t help but agree.

Now that I’ve had a couple of days to process the final book, here is my consensus: I wouldn’t say that these books aren’t worth the read, but I’m also not giving them an enthusiastic recommendation.

Let’s get into the why of it. I have so much to say that I’ve divided this post into parts (and I’m covering three novels here, give me a break).

*End of spoiler-free section*
Please note: the following contains spoilers for all three Tearling books.

I – Positives and mild related criticisms

I want to begin with some positives, because if you couldn’t tell by the tone this post has already taken, I have lot of issues with these novels. As I mentioned in the beginning, Kelsea is an absolutely brilliant character. The way she chastises her own mental shortcomings and mulls things over a lot in her mind was very relatable to me and made her come off as a protagonist that fundamentally just wants to do what’s right. This made her sympathetic right off the bat. She is strong in her convictions, willing to stand up to those who challenge her, and best of all: when she acts, she genuinely suffers the consequences of those actions, good and bad.

I mean, the entire plot of the series stems from her initial decision to stop the shipment of slaves to Mortsmesne. For me, it was really refreshing to see a main character actually have to deal with the consequences of good-faith decisions to such an extent. I think that was a compelling way for Johansen to set up the events of the next two books.

Throughout The Invasion, I enjoyed Lily’s chapters even though they weren’t super relevant to the plot. While it was nice to get a glimpse into the past and get my dystopia fix, I just don’t think Johansen truly executed on the message she was clearly trying to send with Lily about mistakes of the past coming back to haunt the present (and I also didn’t love Lily).

The Katie chapters in The Fate were stronger. I enjoyed them for the most part because honestly, they provided a good break from Kelsea’s (which were just dreadfully boring for the entire first half of the book). Even though the pacing was off at times in this series (in The Queen when it took fucking ages to get to the Keep, in The Invasion with Kelsea kind of just sitting around the Keep), in the end, I enjoyed the way it was structured. I thought it was creative, if inconsistently executed.

I enjoyed a lot of the social commentary as well, despite some of it being either half-assed or super over the top. The general critiques of capitalism and sexism throughout the series were good, but the commentary on religion, for instance, got old fast. While I think the ideas were pretty spot on (that religion promotes dogmatic thinking, that anyone can use religion to their advantage to manipulate others into violence, etc.), so much of The Fate (and parts of The Invasion) were dedicated solely to shitting on religion, to the point that it came off as just a cringy attempt to pwn the Christians. I mean, if a very queer, very highly anti-religion person like myself who genuinely loves to see bigots get their asses handed to them, thought it was a bit over the top… it was probably a bit over the top.

You might be noticing a bit of a pattern: I have something nice to say, then I follow it up with something that irked me about that same thing (the only untouchable element is Kelsea — she’s excellent, full stop). Unfortunately, that’s a great way to sum up the entire series for me. So much of this story was half-assed ideas that with better execution, could have been brilliant.

Anyway, as for the general storyline and prose, they were both good. Not great, not bad — just good. I enjoyed reading about the two warring nations and most of all about Kelsea as she dealt with her inner demons, her fugues, and her royal duties. For the prose, there was a decent amount strong, quote-able lines, so that’s always appreciated.

That about sums it up for the positives, but I want to make one thing clear before I proceed to get pretty negative: I was invested in this story. I enjoyed reading it and I was genuinely curious for how it would all come together at the end. Something about Johansen’s writing (Kelsea, I mean I cannot praise this character enough) drew me in and kept me reading for the whole series (I’m stubborn, but not enough to finish something I don’t genuinely have fun reading, so there you go).

II – Some iffy character work

Alright, into the criticisms. I’ve talked a ton about Kelsea already, so you’re probably wondering “so, about the other characters” and well… I only cared about two characters: Kelsea and the Red Queen, the antagonist for the first two books. I eventually got a bit attached to Katie in book three as well, but not significantly enough to be sad to see her go at the end of the series like the other two. I’m actually going to miss those two.

As a character-driven reader, that’s a massive problem for me. Only two characters I genuinely cared about? I honestly can’t remember the last time I read a series where I couldn’t be bothered to care about a even single important secondary character after three full books (the Mace, Pen, Javel, Hall, Andalie, Aisa, Father Tyler, the Fetch, the entire Queen’s Guard).

I’m a bit picky with my characters, I’ll be the first to admit it, but it’s not even that I dislike all of these (actually, from that list, only the Fetch and Javel); rather, it’s that most are such flimsy or incoherent characters with little driving motivation outside of Kelsea and the main plot that I just can’t get attached to them as individuals. If every character is pretty much only there to serve the MC or oppose them as the villain, it bothers me and I’ll be hard pressed to give a shit when they die.

Speaking of antagonists, we need to talk about Row. I feel like this is maybe an unpopular opinion, but I don’t think he’s a good character at all, and it’s such a shame because he had so much promise. When he and Katie would talk in The Fate of establishing a meritocracy in the Town, that was fascinating to me, because I kept wondering how Johansen was going to reconcile Row’s ideas with Tear’s, when clearly both had such interesting things to say, and whether there was going to be this big showdown. I was so curious about how Row was going to devolve from slightly cruel and petty but ultimately harmless teenager to, well, the Orphan.

Unfortunately, his ideas are never challenged head-on. Tear conveniently disappears from the story around this time, and Row decides to rally the growing religious movement so that he can take control of the Town. Fine, but rather than take the issue of the Town’s authority to a vote that he knows he can win, he builds an entire underground prison under the church, digs up dead bodies to create zombies to serve him (eventually moving to luring children to his magical prison so he can make more zombies), and crafts himself a crown that lets him time-travel? And this is supposed to be a smart character who wants what’s best for the Town?

I don’t know, the move from wanna-be authoritarian Town leader to pure villain who’s evil just because is poorly executed and in my opinion, immediately ruined the little of Row’s character that Johansen had by then built up. By the end of The Fate, does Row even know why he’s attacking the Tearling? The Red Queen’s dead, so that little revenge quest is settled. After three centuries of prison, all he wants is his crown, so that he can… rule the world, I guess? What world, though, if he’s telling his zombie children to murder everyone in sight? We soon found ourselves in Dark Lord, Evil Just ‘Cause, Big Bad territory, and that’s just unoriginal, poor character work to me. I think it hurt even more because Row could’ve been amazing. She could’ve given us another fascinating, nuanced villain like the Red Queen, but unfortunately she missed the mark with Row.

III – The infamous ending

I’m torn on the ending. I like it and I don’t.

I like it because I think it’s a great demonstration that a “happy ending” or that “saving everyone” is not always actually happy for all, especially those doing the saving. It’s absolutely devastating to see Kelsea walking around, unrecognizable to everyone she loves, and forced to move forward into the world she saved but lost everything for. My jaw stayed wide open from the moment she woke up in that room to the very end of the novel, and I loved that absolute devastation Johansen instilled in the readers; I mean, talk about bittersweet. The world is saved, perfect, utopian, but the MC we have come to care about so deeply is now utterly alone. Yeah, ouch.

I also don’t like it though, for a number of reasons, and I think ultimately, those outweigh the brilliance of the devastation the author caused. For one, it was a bit of a deus ex machina situation with the crown and I’m really not a fan of the whole “time travel saves everything” trope, because, well, it’s a cop-out. This one’s no exception, really — just because it’s a ballsy ending and Johansen did a good job of making us hurt along with Kelsea doesn’t completely get rid of that slight feeling of cheapness, of “what was the point?” It’s a cop-out from having to deal head-on with the complex ideas she brought up about the Tearling and humanity and utopia; the author conveniently gets to leave a lot of that behind with the world she spent three books building up, and it feels lazy.

I also hated like being told exactly what the Better World looked like. It felt unduly prescriptive, and took away from the sort of hopeful whimsy the author had created before when it came to utopia and our quest for it. We strive for the Better World and it’s sort of implied the whole time that it’s maybe never going to be possible, but it’s always worth fighting for.

Except… all of a sudden it is possible? And it’s simply America x the UK but slightly more socialist? That’s iffy. And it has police? Don’t know about that one either. In my (and many other people’s) Better World, I’d say we’d definitely have grown past the need for police.

Does that sound far-fetched and unrealistic? Well, exactly. Because, sorry to break it to you, but that’s what utopia is. The whole message of the book is that the Better World is inherently worth fighting for in spite of its futility, that even though we will likely never make it to some kind of utopia, progress is always worth it — and I fucking love that message. It’s so hopeful amidst the bleakness of it all. Maybe I’m just too jaded to believe that the fight for a better world could actually end happily for humanity.

Further yet, the fight being over because one person was killed? I don’t buy it. Again, a big message in The Fate was that Row became one of many problems, that conflict within the Town was already festering before he ever did anything, that his meddling was effective because of pre-existing issues. Are these issues ever actually addressed in the novel?

Of course not, because after some cheap talk about the butterfly effect, we’re somehow supposed to believe that every problem in the world of the Tearling was solved because Row was killed (and honestly, this contributes to Row coming off as this Big Bad — the book literally ends in utopia just because he was killed) and yay time travel.

Again, sorry, I don’t buy it, and for a story that was at times very good with its nuances, this felt like a slap in the face.

IV – A list of more brief, miscellaneous complaints that I didn’t want to get into too much detail about. These might seem nitpicky, but each of these was enough to leave a really bad taste in my mouth.

a) Kelsea being constantly described as plain
It’s nice to have a less attractive MC for a change, but not when it’s shoved in your face constantly (in The Queen in particular). I know it kind of had bearing on the story later in The Invasion, but it was still annoying, very “look at how unique she is, she’s *gasp* unattractive!”

b) Anti-climactic deaths for Brenna, the Red Queen, and Aisa
Need I say much more? So much hype and development for all of them, their powers, their potential, and then… nothing. It would be fine if there had been any kind of grieving or mention of them more than one page after they died, but there wasn’t, so learning about these characters ended up feeling like a huge waste of time. It frustrates me just thinking about it.

c) Katie’s stone
This thing pops up out of nowhere in Kelsea’s cell in Demesne and ends up having zero bearing on the plot. It’s like Johansen forgot about it.

d) The Fetch
I’ll just say it: this character was badly written. How has he barely changed in three hundred years? He still carries some form of religious dogma within him, he’s defensive (rather than resigned or truly guilt-ridden) when confronted by Kelsea about his past mistakes, he spends his time stealing, and he apparently tests rulers to see if they’re “worthy” because I guess he thinks he’s worthy of doing that? We see no actual work to improve the Tearling on his part, despite being told that this is what he does with his never-ending life curse — it makes no sense. He’s barely changed in three hundred years, and given what’s happened to him and what we’re told about him, he realistically would and should have. Also, Kelsea’s crush on him was so weird and did not line up with either of their characters (she’s too smart for him, he’s not even a complete character).

e) Ewen’s “saving the day” moment
I can’t take full credit for this one because I saw it on Goodreads (here) as well, but this reviewer brilliantly articulates the general uncomfortable feeling I had when reading this part as well: “[W]hile I liked the thought of Ewen being able to save the day, I didn’t really care for the explanation given about Ewen not having experienced pain in the same way as others… It kind of implied that “slow people” aren’t capable of deeper emotions.” Yeah, not great. With his whole arc being about believing in himself and proving that he was capable of being a hero for the Tearling and for Kelsea, this definitely soured the moment for me.

f) The presence of religion in the Town
It’s made quite clear that Tear disapproves of religion and would rather it not exist in the Town, but was only choosing not to ban it completely because that would be dictatorial. Fine, but then why let it into the Better World in the first place? If he were truly trying to create a utopia, which to him that meant no religion, then why wouldn’t he only carefully select non-religious individuals to accompany him on the Crossing? Tear clearly had no problem excluding other people from his utopia on the basis of other characteristics he deemed antitheses to utopia, but I guess he just didn’t do it in the case of religion? That makes no sense, and it seems like it was only done so the plot could later use the extremists as antagonists.

g) William Tear
There was so much opportunity to critique him, to break the bubble of mystery around him, and to make him a well-rounded, imperfect character. Instead, we get little direct challenge of him and his ideas, and his one “flaw” or humanizing moment is when we learn that he left Row’s mother while she was pregnant to be with Lily instead because he saw her in a vision. It’s a shitty thing to do, but nothing else in Tear’s character indicated to us that this might be something he actually would do — he was dedicated to his cause, but was also only shown making hard decisions for the purpose of achieving this cause. This is why his choice to abandon his wife for Lily and disown Row on the basis of a vision seems so out of character; we’ve never known Tear to make a decision for purely selfish reasons. His entire character is that he is unselfish, giving himself to his cause, and I guess I just wanted more than one shitty thing he did out of nowhere when it came to humanizing him. It just doesn’t line up with what we knew of him at the time; it wasn’t a moment of shock and “oh wow that makes sense” but rather, a total “what the fuck” moment. Johansen either needed to give him a flaw that lined up with his character (maybe a god complex, or an “ends justify the means” mentality), or needed to expand on him so that ditching his wife and Row actually made sense. The author did neither, and that bothered me because Tear had a lot of potential.

h) Poor queer representation
I mean, this is a problem in so many books that I read and still enjoy a ton, but I definitely expected more than two gay guards, one gay priest, and one lesbian woman from the flashbacks (all side characters with very limited backstories, the latter two of which ultimately die at the hands of religious zealots, an all-too-familiar form of anti-gay violence). I know having a queer character in the main cast is a lot to ask for in most books, but I think it’s fair to expect better from a self-proclaimed feminist book that spends so much of its time critiquing sexism and pushing anti-religion, anti-capitalist, and politically progressive messaging.

i) Poor representation of people of colour
I want to give Johansen the benefit of the doubt, I really do, and yet this representation is just brutal. Why are the POC relegated to the southern nation of Cadare, who is conveniently uninvolved in our story? Why are there seemingly no black people in the Town (or the Tearling, three hundred fucking years later) when it was supposed to be a socialist utopia created by Brits and Americans (half of whose population is black)? Why are the only three black characters we see 1) a mostly irrelevant side character (Lear), 2) a chauffeur who is only there to help Lily realize that she’s a privileged idiot and who is killed off as soon as his purpose is fulfilled (Jonathan), and 3) a misogynist who wants to marry Kelsea off to his King (Cadarese ambassador)? Again, a “progressive” book shouldn’t have these types of issues. When no excuse is given for the exclusion of whole groups of people in a fantasy-dystopian world — a world that came from her imagination — you have to wonder why that is.

j) Unrealistic depictions of self-harm
In book two, we witness how Kelsea self-harms using her magic. She describes it as something she does to feel as though she is in control, to keep her anger in check, and because she feels she deserves it. I really thought we were going to be on the right track with this representation of self-harm, because so far so good, but then one day, she decides that she’s done, just like that, and she stops. This may simply be because it’s at odds with my personal experience and knowledge (and I’m not trying to say that mine was the only true or valid experience or anything like that), but generally-speaking, when you latch onto a toxic and/or addictive coping mechanism, you can’t get rid of it that damn easily. You often need to unlearn it and, most importantly, replace it with a healthier coping mechanism — and this is often very difficult to do without outside help (I’m painting with broad strokes, but you get the point). Not for Kelsea, apparently; she can just stop whenever she wants because self-harm is bad and she knows she should stop, even though the source of her anger hasn’t yet been addressed and she’s done nothing to cope more healthily with it. It’s just not super compelling, and it was a bit jarring to me.

All this to say: I have a lot of problems with this series, and it’s a miracle that so few of its elements (mostly Kelsea’s great character arc) have still managed to leave a lasting impact on me. I think I’ll genuinely miss the MC and that shocking ending, and maybe the story a bit, but as this post has demonstrated… the rest, not that much.

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