The Tearling Trilogy: a rambly and disorganised discussion

So, I recently finished reviewing this series. And it made me think a lot about stuff, so I wanted to do a very rambly discussion post. It’s gonna have spoilers, and may be a little bit incoherent if you’ve not read the books (I’ll try to make it understandable).

This series does a lot of things that I found really interesting. It also had its flaws (among other things, most of the cast are white, and although there are a few non-straight characters they have pretty small parts).

One of the things it did that made me go “yeeeees!” was that it created a realistic, brutal fantasy world in which things are kinda shit for women (“noooooooo!”) but it absolutely refused to sideline its female characters. And this for me was important. I get super sick of people building fantasy worlds with magic and dragons and freaking goblins and then being like “yeah but sexism is still totally a thing”. Aside from everything else, I think it speaks of a lack of imagination. So although the culture is rather similar to some kind of medieval Europe, including the church being not great, the main character is a woman. The main baddie is a woman. Some of the other baddies are women, and a lot of the important side-characters are women. This means that the patriarchal norms of the world get questioned and poked and prodded and challenged. And as a reader, you start thinking ‘well this is ridiculous’ when the most powerful woman in the country has to sneak about to get her hands on contraception.

It also had a culture based in medieval/feudalistic type reality, and did not flinch away from how awful that system was for most people. Which I tip my hat to, because again I get sick of fantasy where it’s assumed that having a monarchic system is going to be great – you’ve only got to read some history to figure out that no, for most people, that meant working your whole life for someone else who might take your entire livelihood away from you at any moment and nobody cared. I liked seeing that trope challenged.

And then there’s the long running theme of utopia and dystopia. This one will take a bit of background info, so beware the SPOILERS. The Tearling was founded by William Tear, who used magic sapphires to Cross time with a group of idealists trying to leave what is heavily implied to be a version of our world. The people who Crossed wanted to build, effectively, a Utopia. In the books they call it the Better World. And they try really hard, but they fail. William Tear failed to take into account human nature, and also, very importantly, history. None of the adults who Crossed could bear to talk about their history, about exactly what they escaped and what the price was. So the next generation grow up with no history, with no knowledge of the world that their parents fought so hard to escape from. And when things get hard in the Tearling, none of them know the dangers of handing over responsibility in return for safety…

Which leads to the Tearling in the present day: feudalistic, illiterate, with a barely functioning economy, a pretty awful monarchy that rarely cares about its people, a church that cares even less, and a monthly tithe to Mortmesne of slaves taken from its own population by lottery. Effectively, a dystopia. One that, somehow, Kelsea Glynn has to reforge. And she knows her damn history, which is pretty awesome. I really liked the way that it was made clear how important that can be, and that she was trying so hard to create something good with the odds stacked against her.

The ending SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS is really interesting in that Kelsea basically travels in time (and this is going to sound pretty deus ex machina when I describe it, but I promise it was actually foreshadowed really well) to the point in history when Jonathan Tear, William Tear’s son (one of them ooooooh) is assassinated. She does not stop the assassination, but kills the ringleader of the assassins leaving Katie (Jonathan’s bodyguard and lover) in a position to rebuild; originally, Katie fled. It’s actually an intensely terrifying sequence; one of the bits where the imagery has stuck in my mind and won’t leave.

And then Kelsea wakes up, in a new timeline, in the new version of the Tearling that she has created. And it is, if not a proper utopia, at least utopian.

Now originally I sorta felt cheated by this: even though it made absolute sense within the logic of the world, and it was made clear how much this was hurting Kelsea. Here she was in this incredible world that she had sacrificed everything for, and not only did nobody know what she had done, nobody knew full stop. Her memories are confused, none of her friends recall her. And it hurts and hurts and hurts. And part of me was going: “hang on, isn’t this a bit of a cop out? Almost like it all being a dream?”

And then I really thought about it. Why would it be more satisfying to have a harsher ending? Why, exactly, did I think I’d prefer something else? And I thought about how we’re trained to believe that utopia is impossible whereas dystopia is only ever just under the surface, so that even in a fantasy trilogy there was part of me that was reluctant to believe this ending. That was interesting, I thought, because I knew when I was reading it that utopia/dystopia was a massive theme of the entire trilogy, and although I always wanted Kelsea to succeed, somehow in winning as completely as she did I instinctively felt a bit disbelieving. Like, it’s not the time-travelling sapphires that tripped me up, it’s the ending well…So it gave me a lot to think about. Dystopian fiction is pretty popular, whereas trying to find anything utopian is a bit of a challenge. It’s like we simply can’t imagine it. It’s like how people can believe that there are dragons but not that women can have a functional role, or will read a fantasy novel a quarter of which is in a made-up language but throw a hissy fit if there’s some Spanish in there. We can believe that things can get worse, and we can believe that things can get better, but the best is somewhere hazy and beyond. And that, well, that’s interesting because if we can’t imagine something better, nobody’s going to try to build it are they?

Anyway, I have a hell of a lot more thoughts so please do come chat 🙂

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