Erika Johansen has been busy since I interviewed her in April 2015. Her Queen of the Tearling became a bestseller, as have its two sequels: Invasion of the Tearling and Fate of the Tearling, which slowly reveal the secrets behind Johansen’s invented postmodern medieval society. No small part of that has to do with the character of Kelsea Glynn, a nineteen-year-old hidden in early childhood from her enemies, then thrust without warning into a queenship for which her training and experience leave her unprepared. Kelsea has guts and intelligence and a pragmatism that serves her well. She’s also a typical nineteen-year-old, worried about her looks and unsure of her appeal. Even a queen, it seems, has to worry about those extra pounds, and Kelsea knows all too well that she is no conventional beauty.
As I noted in “The Re-Created Past,” the world of the Tearling is not a dystopia along the lines of The Hunger Games, Divergence, or other young adult favorites. Its invented medievalism—the reversion to an agricultural society ruled by hereditary kings and queens, in which education belongs to the few and slavery exists side-by-side with a powerful central church—nonetheless holds up a mirror to our contemporary obsession with technology, our refusal to respond adequately to climate change, and our increasing acceptance of social stratification even in what are sometimes called the “advanced democracies.” The recent presidential campaign in the United States, regardless of which candidate you supported, spotlights the necessity of vigilance—not to prevent statistically insignificant incidents of vote fraud but to preserve the very principles on which a healthy society functions.
In reviewing sequels, it is difficult to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say that by undisclosed means, by the beginning of book 3, Kelsea finds herself in the enemy capital of Demesne. Some part of the history behind the Crossing has become clear, although more remains to explore, and the Red Queen of the Mort has acquired the precious sapphires through which Kelsea exercises her magical powers. The Mace, Kelsea’s most loyal henchman, wants nothing more than to free her from the Red Queen’s power, but Kelsea has appointed him regent, thus forcing him to balance his role as head of the Queen’s Guard, which demands that he place the queen’s safety above all, against the certain knowledge that Kelsea will have his hide if he endangers her people and her kingdom by making her release his highest priority.
With these pieces firmly in place, Johansen interweaves the story of her fictional present with an investigation into what happened to turn William Tear’s planned “better world” into the pseudo-medieval society that readers encountered in The Queen of the Tearling—bereft of the printing press and short on leftover books; subject to rigid and extreme social stratification, up to and including regular slave shipments to the neighboring kingdom of Mortmesne; dominated by a powerful and unforgiving church yet beset by violence, corruption, and sin of all sorts. Kelsea’s power, as we discovered in The Invasion of the Tearling, includes the ability to tap into the minds of specific people in the past—there a woman named Lily; here a young girl named Katie. Through these connections, Kelsea learns the story of the pre-Crossing world (in Invasion) and the post-Crossing decline (in Fate), experiences that continue to resonate three centuries later.
Perhaps it is the historian in me: although I enjoyed the not-quite-medieval society that Johansen created in her first book, I particularly liked discovering what had to go wrong for William Tear’s intrepid followers to abandon their homeland and what continued to trouble them once they found what appeared to be their refuge. At moments I was reminded of the Pilgrims on the Mayfair, their hopes and dreams and the brutal reality of the New World they colonized—a journey requiring a commitment every bit as intense and as final as the one Tear and his band make. At other moments, especially in book 2, I saw echoes of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. The characters of the present, especially Kelsea and the Red Queen, have grown and rounded over the course of the series, and their rivalry deepens and shifts until it reaches a satisfying end. But the situation of the original colonists has a special pathos, perhaps because it is closer to our own world—so close at times that the story provokes an anticipatory shudder.
That said, this is a series well worth exploring. If you loved The Queen of the Tearling, then the next step is obvious: finish the sequels. But even if Kelsea didn’t wow you on her first adventure, I recommend giving the series another shot. The factors that can cause a technologically sophisticated, liberal society to unravel merit the attention of any thoughtful person—and in this format, a reader, even on the couch after dinner, will find the information easy to absorb.