[The following contains references to rape, pedophilia, homophobia, ableism, racism, sexism, and fat-shaming.]
Before I get into this review, some context is necessary. I was initially drawn to this book for a bunch of reasons: the heroine was described as “plain”, the lack of romance, and I kind of have a thing for queens regnant. There’s at least one in many of the stories I’ve written where monarchies are a thing. The Queen of the Tearling has all the ingredients to make it a must read for me. Unfortunately, as I’ve learned from years of baking, you can have all the right ingredients and the final product could still taste like crap.
Upon surviving to her nineteenth birthday, Princess Kelsea Raleigh Glynn is taken from the isolated home where she’s lived her whole life and whisked off to the capital to become the new Queen of the Tearling. Surrounded by corruption both close and abroad and with few friends at court, Kelsea must rely on her wits and the power of the magical yet mysterious Tear sapphire to succeed in changing her kingdom from within, if she can survive that long.
Where to begin? Let’s start with the fact that the author apparently received a seven figure advance for the entire trilogy. Normally I wouldn’t bring something like this up, but I’d like you to keep this in mind as you read this. There also appears to be some confusion as to whether this is meant to be YA or an adult novel. I picked up my paperback edition from the young adult section, but the trade paperback edition was in the adult section (under “fantasy”). I’ve heard conflicting accounts, but having read the book, I’m going to classify it as an adult read with a strong young adult periphery demographic. This is also important to remember, please keep it in mind.
I don’t know where to start so I’m just going to be blunt: this book is a load of crap. It’s definitely not the feminist epic I was promised. In fact, it’s the sort of watered down feminism that thinks the only requirement for a thing to be called feminist is a strong female protagonist (whatever that means) who takes no shit from men.
I’m going to start by saying a good thing about this book. For the most part, I thought it was well written. There’s a certain lyrical quality to the prose that I liked. It’s a bit purple, almost, but not quite on the same level as Kushiel’s Legacy (which as far as I’m concerned has the most purple prose of any book I’ve ever read). There were moments where I thought the text could have used a bit more polish, but I wouldn’t call it badly written.
Now that I’ve said my good thing, it’s time to address all the ways I feel this book fucks up. Spoiler alert: it fucks up everything that doesn’t have to do with writing style. Particularly regarding the way its being marketed as a feminist novel with a plain heroine and no focus on romance, because I would argue that it ultimately fails on at least two fronts.
Firstly, let’s start with the plain heroine. Kelsea is plain because she is overweight with dark brown hair. Oh, but her eyes are a stunning green. Understand, there is absolutely nothing wrong with protagonists who are not conventionally attractive. As someone who is very much like Kelsea (that is, overweight with dark brown hair) I’d love to see more characters who aren’t skinny, blonde, and blue eyed (not that there’s anything wrong with fitting that description).
My problem with Kelsea as a plain heroine is that the narrative will not stop fat-shaming her.
Kelsea has a major problem with negative self-talk. She is constantly, constantly lamenting the fact that she’s overweight, talking about how she needs to go on a diet or that she shouldn’t eat so much or the men she’s with will think less of her (more on this in a bit). Other characters get in on it too, like the one scene where her guards remark that she’s essentially too fat to wield a sword. Did I mention she’s supposed to be a queen in what is likely an absolute monarchy, and she’s taking this level of shit from her guards? Seriously? In all fairness, Kelsea is nineteen, and as someone who was once overweight and nineteen, a little self-consciousness is normal. However, it still feels like a slap in the face to be lured in with the promise of an overweight heroine and then having to sit there as she turns out to be another overweight woman who hates herself.
Actually, let’s talk about other women in this book for a second. This book seems to delight in demonizing other women. A good example of this is Queen Elyssa, Kelsea’s mother, who essentially sold her own people into slavery. I think most people will agree that this is a very bad thing, but my issue with Elyssa is that, like Queen Levana in Cinder, villainy is coded in a very conventionally feminine way. Queen Elyssa likes frilly pillows and dresses. Kelsea herself is punished for trying on a dress in an early scene, because apparently liking things like dresses makes you frivolous and therefore a bad monarch, not, you know, selling your people into slavery. An older woman, Lady Andrews, has the gall to care about her appearance when she’s over forty. The beautiful women in this book are overwhelmingly victims of abuse and rape (like Marguerite). Even Carlin, Kelsea’s foster mother, is seen as cold and unfeeling when compared to Barty. It becomes particularly egregious when Kelsea admits to Marguerite, her corrupt uncle’s sex slave that she’s jealous of her because she’s beautiful, because apparently being raped and abused because you’re beautiful is preferable to being an ugly queen that men don’t like? Also apparently the Red Queen keeps pedophiles around for….some reason? Seriously, she says she doesn’t care for them yet still keeps them around? It seems like its there for shock value or to emphasize just how evil Mortmesne is, in case the raping and pillaging didn’t tip you off.
Speaking of men not finding her attractive, Kelsea spends a considerable amount of time drooling over the Fetch, who is a lot like the Black Man in The Princess Bride with none of the charm. This charming specimen implies that Kelsea is too plain to rape in her sleep. See for yourself:
“‘Thank you,’ Kelsea replied, then realized that she wasn’t wearing her own clothing, but a gown of some sort of white cloth, linen, perhaps. She reached up to touch her hair and found it smooth and soft, someone had given her a bath. She looked up at him [the Fetch], cheeks reddening.
‘Yes, me as well.’ His smile widened. ‘But you needn’t worry, girl. You’re far too plain for my tastes.'”
Yeah, this is the man she keeps trying to impress. Personally, I think Kelsea would be completely within her rights to set the dude on fire. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens. So yeah, Kelsea spends a good chunk of the book obsessing over impressing men who are absolute douchebags. The other leading man in this story is the Mace, a man who is constantly on her case about “dolls and dresses”. Although at first glance he seems like the only sensible character in the story, my issue with him is that he won’t shut up and let Kelsea make her own decisions. The moment where she tells him to shut his mouth is probably the best moment in the entire book.
Let’s stop talking about men for a moment and talk about the villainous characters in general. Maybe my expectations are too high, but for a feminist book aimed at adults, the villains seem almost cartoonishly villainous. Villains in this book are one of four things: fat, old, ugly, or sexual, with motivations that basically amount to “I did it because I’m evil.” Note that in the Red Queen’s case, however, the way she expresses her sexuality is by raping her slaves. By the way, did I mention that having Mort blood apparently equates to having dark skin and there’s literally only one unambiguously black character on the protagonist’s side (Lear, a soldier who is the first black person Kelsea has seen in her life). I get what the author was trying to do (citizens of color being oppressed by a white person in charge) but in practice it’s just another “good white nation vs. evil people of color” thing. Now, the villains do plenty of villainous things: the Regent, for example, abuses women and lives in luxury while his people starve. Lady Andrews shut herself up in a tower and let an invading army massacre her serfs, but there’s also a suspicious amount of emphasis on their appearance that the protagonists generally escape (unless your Kelsea). Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the first series I’ve read with obviously evil villains (hello Black Jewels series) but I guess I expected a little more nuance.
Let’s talk setting and how it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. As far as I am aware this book is being marketed as fantasy. Well, surprise! It’s actually a post-apocalyptic world! Yes, it’s another post-apocalyptic world where society has inexplicably regressed to the Middle Ages. There was something called the Crossing, see, where this socialist named William Tear gathered up a bunch of people and made a crossing to Europe. I’ve read weirder premises, but the thing with the world-building is that it’s just inconsistent. It’s outright stated that all medical knowledge was lost in the Crossing–except birth control. Why birth control? I have no idea. Also how the fuck do a bunch of English and American socialists end up founding a pseudo-Catholic church? How did a socialist utopia somehow become a monarchy? How did Tear manage to somehow only recruit white socialists? Why is a very sexist society like the Tearling okay with having a woman on the throne when there’s an easily manipulated male relative they could just keep as a puppet ruler? None of this is actually explained and to be completely honest, the author could have still written a compelling book without the inconsistent modern trappings, suspension of disbelief can only go so far.
Triggers are numerous, references to rape are frequent, pedophilia less so. I’ve already discussed the sexism, racism, and fat-shaming, but there’s also some ableism as well in the way Carlin is described as “physically whole” unlike Barty, as well as the statement that Queen Elyssa sent away “criminals and the mentally ill” as slaves, because mental illness is equated to criminal activity. Note that while there is a history of lumping mentally ill/disabled people and criminals together, Kelsea only expresses disgust with the fact that her people were enslaved, not that mentally ill people were specifically targeted.
I think the bottom line for me is that The Queen of the Tearling ultimately undermines its own message. It wants to be a feminist story about a heroine who manages to come to power in a sexist society, but instead it’s a story about an overweight heroine who hates herself and constantly judges other women based on their appearance, never mind the plethora of -isms and the inconsistent worldbuilding. The Queen of the Tearling could have been something special, but instead it just regurgitates the same tired old crap. I know I gave Throne of Glass shit for perpetuating girlhate but honestly, at least Throne of Glass was kind of fun.