Erika Johansen’s new novel, The Queen of the Tearling, uses a familiar fantasy premise: a special child—a chosen one, if you will—is born, and then hidden from those with murderous intent. As the book opens, it is 19 years later, and the time has come for Kelsea Glynn, the rightful queen of a benighted land, to leave hiding and assume her throne.
Plenty of people still wish her dead, especially the near-immortal Red Queen of neighboring Mortmesne. Kelsea’s not completely without allies, though. Besides the two loyal guardians who have raised her and prepared her for this moment, a troop of queen’s guards has arrived to deliver her into the heart of the wasp’s nest that is her birthright. There’s also a rakish lord of thieves.
In addition to the host of immediate threats, Johansen sets up a few mysteries that will be resolved over the course of her planned series. Most are common fantasy tropes—who is Kelsea’s father? What exactly is the story of the evil queen?—but Johansen’s world also contains a bigger mystery of setting: When and where, exactly, is the present action taking place? While it feels relatively medieval, there are numerous references to a Crossing, and everything Pre-Crossing sounds like the real world (our world). This suggests the kingdoms of Tear and Mortmesne may have more of a science fiction/post-apocalyptic tinge than is immediately apparent.
With so many nutritional staples of genre in play, it would be easy for Johansen’s novel to come across either as overly bland, or as a confusingly crowded mish-mash. Yet The Queen of the Tearling avoids this fate by keeping the action and the characters engaging. Kelsea, the Red Queen, Mace (the captain of Kelsea’s guards) and the rest of the characters are made interesting thanks to the actions they take and the world they inhabit.
Ultimately, The Queen of the Tearling is a notable debut and a reminder that a dish need not have exotic ingredients or fancy presentation to prove filling and tasty to the fantasy palate.