I picked up the uncorrected proof copy of this book at World Fantasy Con 2013 as part of my initial goody bag – and once I read it, I was very chuffed I did. The writing is sharp and the set-up interesting – and there is a film of the book being made with Emma Watson in the lead…
Like many nineteen-year-olds, Kelsea Glynn is unruly, has high principles and believes that she knows better than her elders. Unlike many nineteen-year-olds, she is about to inherit a kingdom that is on its knees – corrupt, debauched and dangerous. She will either become the most fearsome ruler the kingdom has ever known, or be dead within the week…
You’ll have gathered from the short back cover blurb that this is epic High Fantasy – with a twist. Because during the story there are various references to the Crossing, so this secondary world appears to be a lost colony. What is clear is that their technology is going backwards – antibiotics are as rare as fully trained doctors. Books are also uncommon and there is no printing press. To all intents and purposes, Tearling has been knocked down to subsistence level agriculture, apart from a layer of nobility who own all the land and wealth.
As for the political situation, Kelsea’s uncle has been official Regent since her mother’s death and Kelsea has been brought up in secret, while teams of professional assassins have been roaming the land looking for her. And her isolated existence with the hand-picked couple chosen to rear her abruptly ends when a small company of Queen’s Guards rides into the clearing in front of their cottage. She has to gather up a small bundle of belongings and ride with them, hopefully to survive until her coronation.
While it isn’t my favourite sub-genre, I’ve read one or three High Fantasy series in my time – and I don’t recall any of them starting with such an isolated heroine. I also really like the fact that she is physically plain – I just hope that this characteristic continues… The world is described in detail and a thoroughly miserable place it is, especially if you are a Tearling. The book charts Kelsea’s realisation that things are more than a tad desperate – and that she needs to do something about it. I really enjoyed watching her steady maturation through the book – along with her bursts of temper and headstrong insistence on being right.
The main antagonists are all suitably lethal and nasty, and I enjoyed the Red Queen’s panic at the thought of Kelsea successfully ascending the throne. This is a sub-genre where antagonists often have all the depth of a pavement puddle, so it was enjoyable to see her more vulnerable moments – as well her novel way of keeping bad dreams away… She selects buff men and doses them up so they don’t object to having head-banging sex with her. Though Johansen doesn’t give us any graphic details, it is a subject that comes up very regularly in the book in fairly challenging ways, so despite the youth of the main protagonist, this isn’t a YA offering.
Any grizzles? Well… more of a slight sense of disquiet. I’m a bit allergic to magical artefacts and the object that surfaces in this book has the potential to transform Kelsea into a mega-powerful character. Given the adroit and sharp performance of Johansen’s writing so far – I’m assuming that something else is going to happen in the second book in the series to ringfence some of the power this thing kicks out. But I’ll certainly be looking out for the next book. This is a very strong, confident start to a series that offers us yet another interesting take on this sub-genre.