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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Book Review: The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

The FAte of the Tearling book cover

Long before the Red Queen of Mortmesne came to power, the Glace-Vert was already a lost cause.

I finally finished this incredible trilogy, and oooooh do I have a lot to say! If you want to catch up, you can find my reviews of the previous books here and here. I am going to try to avoid spoilers, but there will definitely be some for the previous two books.

So, The Fate of the Tearling. Where to even start? It’s hard to review without describing the whole plot of this and the previous two books, because a lot of things get followed up and pulled together, some of which I had not even noticed being foreshadowed. Kelsea Glynn, now a prisoner, is being taken to Mortmesne; the Mace is trying to run the Tearling (he has the entire damn church to contend with); the Red Queen (we know who she is now!!!!) has an enemy other than Kelsea. And frankly, it looks like everything might go to hell in a handcart. The flashbacks from the past are increasingly important, relating to the present and possibly the future. We get to see the Tearling in its infancy, and watch as it inexorably seems to rip itself apart.

There were a lot of things I loved: this book has strong imagery, much of which has stayed with me. Kelsea and the Red Queen actually being in the same room and having conversations was fantastically tense. And I’m always going to enjoy a fantasy book with this many awesome and interesting women: Kelsea, the Red Queen, Andalie (a seer on the run), Aisa (Andalie’s daughter, learning how to use knives and swords both), Glee (Andalie’s other daughter, also a seer), Brenna (the witch), Emily (a slave in Mortmesne, spying for the Mace), Allie (barely in it, still liked her), Katie (from the past, bodyguard), Lily (part of the original Crossing)…..

The resolution, well, I’m trying to avoid spoilers but I did not see it coming. Honestly, I am going to have to splash out and buy this series, because I need to re-read the entire thing. I recommend it highly.

For those of you who are interested, there is going to be a rambly discussion post about this series in a day or so. It will be RIFE WITH SPOILERS, so be wary of that.

Rating: read this book, cling on for dear life!

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Book Review: The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

the invasion of the tearling erika johansen

The second Mort invasion had all the makings of a slaughter.

BEWARE SPOILERS!

This, you may have guessed, is the sequel to The Queen of the Tearling. And it is amazing! One of the main points about the fantasy world that has been created here is that, although it looks pretty typical human high fantasy at first glance, it is revealed throughout the first book that actually, these people are descended from fugitives from our world. Or our world some years forward with horribly believable dystopian trappings. A revolutionary called William Tear led the Crossing (what they were crossing is a reveal in this book, so I’m not telling).

This means that the Tearling (and presumably other kingdoms and queendoms) has this interesting juxtaposition of technologically being about able to make a basic cannon, but having historical records of x-ray machines. I love it. This book really deals with that part of the story, as Kelsea starts having visions of a woman who is somehow connected to the Crossing. At first, I was a little impatient with these flashbacks as I just wanted to know what was going to happen: Mortmesne is invading! We’re getting clues about who the Red Queen is! Please just tell me what’s happening! However, after a slightly awkward section I quickly became hooked, and it started becoming clear that the flashbacks were important and also forwarding the plot.

Kelsea herself I found challenging in this instalment, but nowhere near as challenging as a lot of teenage sovereigns in fantasy can be. And I think I was meant to find her challenging, and to question her judgement and her decisions. Other characters certainly did. I loved the intrigue, the back and forth between church and crown intensifying, the preparations for this totally hopeless invasion, Kelsea’s weird magical powers starting to make more sense…

The end was, well, I had a hunch about the ending. And I was half-right. And it was a massive cliffhanger (Kelsea you redeemed yourself bigtime) and I have been waiting on tenterhooks for the final book to come into the library (which it finally has). So, if you are interested in some slightly brutal, fast-paced, interestingly-built fantasy with WOMEN, I recommend this series.

And if you have read it, I would love to chat about it with you! I have so many feelings about this series!

Rating: read this book – do not make deals with the demon in the fire.

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Book Review: The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

The Queen of the Tearling

Kelsea Glynn sat very still, watching the troop approach her homestead.

I picked this up thinking “Oh this seems like a reasonably straightforward, returning sovereign type fantasy thing”. I was very happy to be proved wrong! It begins much in the ‘returning-sovereign-will-save-the-land’ vein, in a seemingly high fantasy world with the rightful heir to the throne (Kelsea Glynn) having been raised in a cottage in a wood somewhere by Carlin and Barty Glynn. A troop of soldiers arrive to take her to New London to be crowned, and then… Well, then everything flies wonderfully off the hook. Not so abruptly that it’s jarring; but we slowly realise that no, this is not a typical high fantasy story. It doesn’t actually look as though Kelsea is even going to make it as far as New London, let alone get crowned, because the Regent (her uncle) has formed an alliance with the Tearling’s scary neighbour (Mortmesne) and is sending assassins after her. There are killer hawks! There are guild assassins and bits of magic and a sort of highwayman bandit type who might be helpful.

Kelsea is also realising that she has been consistently lied to about, well, something… She does not know what. And that she is lacking a lot of experience and knowledge. And that her guards are lying to her as well. She’s a fantastically tenacious protagonist, who starts out with a good knowledge base but little experience and then learns really fast because it’s learn or die and Kelsea has decided that she’s not going to die before she even gets to her throne. The scene when she does finally get crowned is exhilarating and the story doesn’t end there!

The worldbuilding is also excellent – I could babble about it for hours. I’m going to avoid that though (because spoilers) and just say that it’s one of the most interesting fantasy set-ups I’ve seen in a while. The politics all weave together with the history and the brutality of feudal-ish lifestyles and the tension between the state and the church. Excellent, so excellent. A fantastic story about a new ruler coming into power, set against a brilliantly conceived world – I am eagerly waiting for the sequel to come back to the library.

Rating: read this book. Aim to be half as hardcore as Kelsea Glynn.