Book Review: The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

A fantasy novel about a reluctant monarch ascending the throne after years in hiding, who inherits a struggling kingdom threatened by the mad queen of a neighboring land isn’t exactly a revolutionary concept. Quite the opposite—it’s cliché. Yet The Queen of the Tearling is getting a lot of pre-publication buzz, due to a big advance for the series and an A-list movie star attached to the film adaptation. But is it worth the hype?

The Queen of the Tearling
by Erika Johansen

Published: July 8th 2014 by Harper
ISBN 9780062290366
Find: Amazon | Goodreads | Library
Source: ARC from publisher
Genre: Adult Epic Fantasy
Perspective: Third Person

Synopsis (Goodreads): On her nineteenth birthday, Princess Kelsea Raleigh Glynn, raised in exile, sets out on a perilous journey back to the castle of her birth to ascend her rightful throne. Plain and serious, a girl who loves books and learning, Kelsea bears little resemblance to her mother, the vain and frivolous Queen Elyssa. But though she may be inexperienced and sheltered, Kelsea is not defenseless: Around her neck hangs the Tearling sapphire, a jewel of immense magical power; and accompanying her is the Queen’s Guard, a cadre of brave knights led by the enigmatic and dedicated Lazarus. Kelsea will need them all to survive a cabal of enemies who will use every weapon—from crimson-caped assassins to the darkest blood magic—to prevent her from wearing the crown.

Despite her royal blood, Kelsea feels like nothing so much as an insecure girl, a child called upon to lead a people and a kingdom about which she knows almost nothing. But what she discovers in the capital will change everything, confronting her with horrors she never imagined. An act of singular daring will throw Kelsea’s kingdom into tumult, unleashing the vengeance of the tyrannical ruler of neighboring Mortmesne: the Red Queen, a sorceress possessed of the darkest magic. Now Kelsea will begin to discover whom among the servants, aristocracy, and her own guard she can trust.

But the quest to save her kingdom and meet her destiny has only just begun—a wondrous journey of self-discovery and a trial by fire that will make her a legend…if she can survive.

The Queen of the Tearling introduces readers to a world as fully imagined and terrifying as that of The Hunger Games, with characters as vivid and intriguing as those of The Game of Thrones, and a wholly original heroine. Combining thrilling action and twisting plot turns, it is a magnificent debut from the talented Erika Johansen.The Queen of the the Tearling by Erika Johannsen

My thoughts: Comparisons are odious. Trying to sell a books as Game of Thrones meets The Hunger Games is only setting yourself up for failure. When you bring up Harry Potter, too…seriously. Just let a work stand on its own.

Of course, when a book has been optioned for film rights and Emma Watson has signed on to star, there’s going to be a lot of interest in a book, and these kind of comparisons are going to be made. I’m not sure if these comparisons are helpful for readers or not, but marketing departments in publishing houses certainly think that they sell books.

On it’s own, I found The Queen of Tearling to be a compelling book I wanted to read to the end. It held my interest and entertained me, but it was not without its faults. I’ll still be interested in the sequel, but this book didn’t shatter my heart or tug at my soul the way books with similar themes have done.

The World-building

Each chapter begins with a snippet from a “history” or Tearling, the nation founded on a utopian dream after the Crossing, where apocalyptic events forced people to flee from America back to Europe. Much technology and medicine were lost in this migration, and the world resembles feudal Europe of the Middle Ages, in politics, dress, and custom. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel that this mythology was executed very well, even if it’s an interesting premise. Perhaps these elements will be more fully flushed out in the sequel.

The Plot

The story begins when Kelsea is being retrieved by the Queen’s guard to ascend the throne, now that she is come of age. Her mother was queen until her untimely death, and her uncle has ruled at court while she has been in hiding. On her journey she is chased by assassins, hired by her uncle, the Regent, and encounters much danger on the way. At once point, it seems she will surely be captured, but is rescued by an outlaw. She survives an assassination attempt during her coronation, ends the slave trade, has visions of a war with a neighboring country, demonstrates some bravery and political cunning. Standard fantasy fare. There’s not one, but two magical necklaces, the question of who exactly Kelsea’s father is, and an evil witch of a queen in the neighboring land.

Though it is easy for this type of a high or epic fantasy story to get bogged down in details and subplots, this was a fast-paced, quick read for me. I read it start to finish in a day. But there was nothing terribly unique or startling about the story. Most of the plot is based on convenience. For example, why is it only as she journeys to the capitol to ascend the throne that assassins are closing in on her? If she was such a threat, it seems she would have been continually hunted while growing up.

Character Development

Kelsea has a strong moral compass and a sense of duty, just as one would want in a queen. She is neither stupid nor cowardly. The various members of her guard and council each had their own backstory. There’s nothing terribly distinct or deep about any of the characters. I’m oh-so-intrigued by the outlaw, and wish there had been just a tad more opportunity for romance in the book, which is perhaps due to my tendency to read young adult fantasy, which often offers the chance for a little more swooning than The Queen of the Tearling delivers.

There are some inconsistencies that didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the story, but when evaluating this book in technical sense, I feel must be acknowledged.  Kelsea has grown up in complete isolation. She was never allowed to wander beyond the forest of her house. Although the couple who took her in were well-educated and she had access to many books, none of this told her about the basic political reality of her homeland, but her internal thoughts often are at odds with this basic fact. There are all sorts of little distracting contradictions in the text.

While I found the heroes to be interesting enough, the villains of the story were predictable and even dull. Kelsea’s uncle is a caricature of a fat, lazy ruler who treats women as objects. There was no real malice to him, only selfishness. The real antagonist, the Red Queen of Mortmesne, rules the powerful neighboring nation. She’s your standard witch, dealing in dark magic. Her only characterization is appropriated from fairy tales with female villains. Dark magic, a desire to never age, etc. She might as well be the stepmother from Snow White or Malificent from Sleeping Beauty.


The narration style is a very close third person, and the majority of novel follows Kelsea. While there are glimpses of secondary characters, these mainly serve the purpose of fleshing out aspects of the plot that Kelsea isn’t directly involved with, rather than to develop characters or give them a full arc themselves. This was my main complaint. I’d have preferred to stay in Kelsea’s head for how little affection or interest I developed in the brief time I spent in the heads of other characters.

The Bottom Line

The Queen of the Tearling was enjoyable enough to read, but lacked some depth and nuance that I’ve found in my favorite epic fantasy stories. It might have benefited from being classified as young adult and some additional editing.

Recommended for fans of: I can’t compare this to any adult fantasy I’ve read, but readers who like YA fantasy like the Graceling Realm series (my review), The Girl of Fire and Thorns series, or The Lumatere Chronicles (my review) may enjoy this series. It certainly features an intriguing world, a compelling female character on a quest who is determined to do the best for the good of society.

Second opinions:

Jenny Blenk: “It was a completely unnecessary concern though, and in no time at all I was sucked into a dangerous world of power struggles and conspiracies, traitors, a kingdom in need of a ruler to repair the damage done by her predecessors, and a 19-year-old girl trying to prove her mettle on the throne.” 




11 thoughts on “Book Review: The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

  1. I read this book in two days. I was superficially entertained but felt that it could have been so much more. I was a bit disappointed by the lack of development of the backstory and how the yearling society had regressed socially into a feudal mess. I also found that Kelsea character development was a bit flat. The idea of maintaining political control for the sake of achieving a broader justice was alluded to, but the development of the character failed to explore this psychological conflict. Nor did it adequately define an evolution of her value system.

    It was also somewhat difficult to determine who was the principle villain. Was it the red queen or the uncle or the church or Thorne.

    That said despite a bit of disappointment ,I will be making an effort to read the rest of this series

    1. I had similar feelings about the first installment — but the second book in the series blew me away, and clarified a lot of the questions you have (they also frustrated me!)

  2. Hmm, comparison to The Hunger Games and A Game of Thrones do sound like they’re setting the book up for failure? And can I also mention that those two books aren’t even related? I wouldn’t make comparisons between the two of them, so i’m not sure how this fantasy is both like an epic fantasy with a pseudo-historical bend and a futuristic dysoptian. The political intrigues in both books are not similar at all, and I feel like that may be the main point of comparison between the three?
    Regardless, that’s good to hear that you liked this novel overall, even if you don’t quite think it’s worth the hype it’s received so far.I do love my epic fantasies, so I will definitely give this one a go. But I will not go in expecting this to become my new favorite novel.
    Thanks so much for the helpful, detailed review!

    1. It’s way more Game of Thrones in terms of genre. Maybe because it’s in a devestated future world (that feels more feudal) and has one strong female lead rather than a huge rotating cast of POV characters they thought throwing in The Hunger Games made sense?

      Hope you like the books! I think it will find its fans but not be the huge hit it was set up to be.

  3. I’m not a huge fan of fantasy novels, but I agree quoting other books (especially successful ones) only sets you up for failure if there is high expectations

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