Second-guessing where a trilogy is going on the strength of just its first volume is, clearly, a mug's game. Nonetheless I like to think I possess at least something of the qualities of a sturdily built cup designed for consumption of hot beverages. Erika Johansen's debut novel appears to be a High Fantasy romp of almost arthritically traditional cast; but as the trilogy unfolds I expect it to metamorphose, for good and ill, into a future-set dystopia on another planet, in which what appear to be magical, immortal, or otherwise prophetically fated elements to the story are revealed as having pseudo-scientific rationales. There: take my hostage, fortune!
In this opening episode, though, the flavor is pretty pungently Tudor Fantasyland. We start, of course, with a map: the Tearling is a peninsula some two hundred miles by one hundred, poking out into the ocean ("Fairwitch Sea" to the north, "God's Ocean" to the west, "Tearling Gulf" to the south) and in many respects resembling a sort of mirror-reflected Kent, capital "New London," main port "New Dover." It is mostly forest and farmland, and though improbably densely populated—we're told at one point that two million people live there—it is very poor. Our point of view character Kelsea Glynn is the rightful Queen of this place, but she's been raised Sleeping-Beauty-like in the woods, to keep her out of the way of the "Red Witch" who wants her dead. You see, to the east of Tearling is the ominously named kingdom of Mortmesne, and they have all the iron, and a large well-trained army, and a thoroughly ruthless manner. A generation earlier their queen, the aforementioned Red Witch, sent her military on a raping-and-pillaging march through the innocent Tearling countryside. The army stopped at the walls of "The Keep" in New London, and only returned home once the old queen there had signed a peace treaty involving a regular tribute of slaves: "two hundred and fifty people, once a month, like clockwork." Kelsea (who, having been raised in seclusion in the woods, has the sort of ignorance that's terribly useful for a writer needing to lay out her worldbuilding to her readership) is horrified when she learns about the tribute. "The Red Queen wanted tribute, Lady," her bodyguard tells her. "The Tearling had nothing else to offer" (p. 112).
Kelsea has a bodyguard because, as the novel opens, she's finally coming of age; soldiers turn up to escort her out of hiding and to her throne, currently occupied by her wicked Uncle—a corpulent alcoholic who keeps a beautiful naked woman on a chain sat at his feet. Evil, you see. Kelsea possesses the magical jewel that establishes her right to rule, but—as the novel's tagline has it—her throne only awaits "if she can live long enough to take it." Her uncle wants her dead. The Red Queen of the neighboring superpower wants her dead. She, meanwhile, is so blithely ignorant about everything one wonders if she knows how to sit the right way round on a toilet. She doesn't know who her father is, or what her mother was like; she doesn’t know that Mortmesne invaded, or compelled her land to make this terrible treaty. She basically doesn’t know anything about anything, and Johansen builds the first half of her narrative as a mutual suspense-and-uncovering of the past's secrets by Kelsea and the reader, hand in hand.
Strange to say it works pretty well. Unostentatiously written, characterized in obvious and rather broad strokes, The Queen of the Tearling nonetheless holds the reader's attention—or at least it held mine. On her way to the throne Kelsea falls in with a Robin Hood individual called Fetch (not, as I initially misread this, Fletch, though Chevy Chase's leering phizog stayed in my mind’s eye as I read his scenes), who helps her on her way. Eventually she makes it to New London, the Tearling's capital city, where she encounters the horrible truth of the Minotaur-y tribute her nation is paying. Kelsea indignantly frees all the captives at once, even though it will mean an inevitable Mort invasion and all the atrocities of war. The mother of one of the children she had freed relates the fate her daughter had so narrowly escaped:
"She would have died before long. The girls die much more rapidly than the boys. Used for menial labour until she was old enough to be sold for pleasure. That is, if she was fortunate enough not to be bought by a child rapist upon arrival." Andalie bared her teeth in a grim, pained smile. "Mortmesne condones many things." (p. 149)
This is a horrible enough premise, and all the more arresting in that the book is effectively being marketed as a post-Potter YA Fantasy. The front cover of my copy comes with a "notice me!" big red sticker announcing "Soon to be a major motion picture, starring Emma Watson." The flap-copy doubles down on this boast: "Film rights have been acquired by Warner Brothers, who will reunite 'Harry Potter' team of producer David Hayman and star Emma Watson." Not that Watson will be well cast as far as this role is concerned. One thing the novel insists upon, with a weirdly insistent repetition, is how plain-looking Kelsea is: tall and dark, but heavy-set and unpretty. The handsome Fletch assures her that he's not romantically interested in her ("You're far too plain for my taste," [p. 66]); and her fencing master is downright rude ("'You require conditioning, Lady. You'll never be as lithe as a dancer, but you'd move faster if you carried less weight.' Kelsea flushed and quickly turned away. She knew she was heavier than she should be, but there was a big difference between knowing something and hearing it spoken out loud" [p. 266]). This is a venerable Jane Eyre-y strategy, of course: dialing down the pulchritude of your heroine the more believably to mary-sue her. And as a strategy it has certain advantages: for since the hero isn't distracted by a pretty face, and falls in love with the true heart beneath the unalluring exterior, it can work to heighten the true love pang with which the story will eventually pay off. (I'm again, mug-like, guessing here: The Queen of the Tearling surrounds Kelsea with gorgeously handsome men, but she has copped-off with none of these by the end of vol 1. That will surely have changed, come vol 3.) Hollywood, I suppose, is like US daytime soap operas—simply disinclined to cast actual human beings in key roles. But the point of the red sticker, and flap copy, has less to do with the rather boyish good looks of Watson herself. It is a signal to potential readers. Want more Harry Potter? Buy this!
As far as that goes, Potter is a tricky prototype to follow. I don't just mean in terms of its globe-spanning success, or special charm. I mean that Rowling's series starts out Young Young Adult, and ends up, via death, torture, and burgeoning sexualities, considerably more Adult Young Adult. If you want to pitch your book to readers who have already worked through all seven of those books, you may decide to plump more for a Deathly Hallows than a Philosopher's Stone vibe.
What this means in The Queen of the Tearling is that we get faux-adult violence, sexual references, the odd f-word, and even one use of the c-word—rather jarringly so, in an otherwise entirely by-the-numbers contemporary young adult story of a teenage girl working to change her world from dystopia to better, like Hunger Games, Divergent, or Noughts and Crosses. (Also from Noughts and Crosses, I presume, is the rather flip inversion of racial roles: the pacific, oppressed Tearlingers are white, the Mortmesne invaders black. I wasn't convinced that this worked terribly well, although at least Johansen doesn't sew it onto a banner in three-foot-high letters and flap it in her readers' faces the whole time.)
The YA framing leads to a cartoon-y exaggeration of good and evil. For example: the first time we meet the Red Queen, she is in her bedroom, looking through her casement at "the Crown city of Desmense." She has been woken early by a nightmare, and her nightmare of course is of the threat posed by Kelsea, the Queen of the Tearling. So far, so Grimm; but this scene swiftly takes a darker-than-Grimm turn that propels it right past (crooking my little finger against the corner of my mouth) ee-evil and straight into absurdity.
A thick guttural sound came from behind her, and the Queen whirled around. But it was only the slave in her bed. She had forgotten about him. He'd performed well, and she'd kept him for the night; a good fuck chased the dreams right away. But she loathed snoring. (p. 44)
"The Queen had handpicked him," we’re told, "for his dark skin and aquiline nose, a clear sign of Mort blood. But a slave who snored was no use to anyone." So? So she summons her guards.
"Take him down to the lab. Have them remove his tongue and uvula. And sever his vocal cords, just in case." The slave screamed and struggled harder as her guards worked to pin him to her bed. One had to admire his strength. . . . "Once he's healed, offer him to Lady Dumont with our compliments." (p. 46)
Blimey. This sort of thing never happened in Narnia.
One way of reacting to this is to deplore the increasing sexualization of youth culture, where the ceremony of innocence has been, if not exactly drowned, then certainly waterboarded to within an inch of its life. Johansen is not trying to shock her young-adult readers; she is giving them just what they expect, in our general cultural post-Game of Thrones darkling grimness. This is how kids are, nowadays. This is how they see the world—the more cossetted and affluent their own suburban home-life, the more horrible a place they take the larger world to be. And anyway I'm less struck by questions of moral decadence than I am of aesthetic praxis. Lewis's White Witch tempts Edmund with some Turkish Delight, and he succumbs, betraying his sisters and brother. Less being so much more than more, this generates real dramatic punch, in a way that using a slave for sex and then having his tongue ripped out simply cannot.
The novel is indicative of contemporary youth in other ways too. The Red Witch is centuries old, kept unnaturally young by magic; but as with The Hunger Games's opposition between the fresh-faced natural beauty of Katniss on the one hand, and the hideous overly-made-up faded artifice of the Capitol chaperone Effie Trinket on the other, there's a pervasive sense in Johansen's novel that middle-aged (= "old") people doing sex and physical attractiveness is just, like, gross. When she takes over her court, Kelsea meets Lady Andrews, whom the novel does not spare:
Lady Andrews's hands had clutched into claws. The nails were long hooks, manicured a bright purple. Deep pockets of red had emerged in the fleshless crescents beneath her eyes . . . Kelsea wondered: how could a woman who looked so old still place so much importance on being attractive? She had read about this particular delusion in books many times. (p. 333)
This is the well-known psychological delusion of refusing to act the old crone when you reach the age of . . . wait, how old? "She was much older than she seemed in the dim light of the throne room, perhaps as old as forty." GET OUT OF TOWN!
I know, I know. Forty seems impossibly old when you're a teen, and the thought of such skeletons, like, actually having sex is of course repulsive to you (your parents, like, doing it, eew, gross). Johansen channels that vibe very efficiently. Her teen heroine is wisecracking and sharp enough to appeal to, and vulnerable and unsure enough to connect with, her readers. There's a mildly satirical portrait of the Christian Church in Tearling (its Holy Father rules with sinister ruthlessness, although not many Tearlingers follow the faith) designed I suppose to appeal to youngsters heady with The God Delusion. The Mort army mobilizes on the border, and the situation seems hopeless; but in appropriately Tolkienian eucatastrophic mode, the day is saved by the magic jewel Kelsea carries with her, and which Frodo-like she can't bear to be separated from: "when she pulled the chain from her neck she felt diminished. It was a dreadful feeling, like being drained" (p. 358).
The Tolkien reference, there, isn't arbitrary; the New London Keep Library contains, amongst other books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. These and a score of other artfully dropped-in references indicate that the novel is set in a possible future, not an alt-past. And that in turn brings me back to my mug-like opening predictions. I started reading this novel thinking it would be a Queen-Elizabeth-in-Fantasyland tale; I finished it believing that it was pitching itself at a rather different target. I think this series wants to be a twenty-first-century Darkover. Marion Zimmer Bradley's name has of course become a toxic one in SF fandom, and with good cause; so it's easy to forget how hugely popular the Darkover books were, back in the day. Their mix of heroic fantasy and futuristic rocketship planetary romance appealed to a huge constituency of readers. I wouldn't bet against Johansen for achieving a similar success.