I think I’ve heard of THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING, vaguely, before. It was pitched as appealing to fans of GAME OF THRONES and THE HUNGER GAMES, sold with a seven-figure deal, and full of hype. But now that I’ve read the synopsis, I can safely say I am in love with the premise, the genre, and now, the cover. Here’s a little bit about the book first.
On her nineteenth birthday, Princess Kelsea Raleigh Glynn, raised in exile, sets out on a perilous journey back to the castle of her birth to ascend her rightful throne. Plain and serious, a girl who loves books and learning, Kelsea bears little resemblance to her mother, the vain and frivolous Queen Elyssa. But though she may be inexperienced and sheltered, Kelsea is not defenseless: Around her neck hangs the Tearling sapphire, a jewel of immense magical power; and accompanying her is the Queen’s Guard, a cadre of brave knights led by the enigmatic and dedicated Lazarus. Kelsea will need them all to survive a cabal of enemies who will use every weapon—from crimson-caped assassins to the darkest blood magic—to prevent her from wearing the crown.
Despite her royal blood, Kelsea feels like nothing so much as an insecure girl, a child called upon to lead a people and a kingdom about which she knows almost nothing. But what she discovers in the capital will change everything, confronting her with horrors she never imagined. An act of singular daring will throw Kelsea’s kingdom into tumult, unleashing the vengeance of the tyrannical ruler of neighboring Mortmesne: the Red Queen, a sorceress possessed of the darkest magic. Now Kelsea will begin to discover whom among the servants, aristocracy, and her own guard she can trust.
But the quest to save her kingdom and meet her destiny has only just begun—a wondrous journey of self-discovery and a trial by fire that will make her a legend…if she can survive.
The Queen of the Tearling introduces readers to a world as fully imagined and terrifying as that of The Hunger Games, with characters as vivid and intriguing as those of The Game of Thrones, and a wholly original heroine. Combining thrilling action and twisting plot turns, it is a magnificent debut from the talented Erika Johansen.
Doesn’t it sound epic? Thanks to Harper, I’ve got the inside scoop on where the idea for the epic series came from, as well as a Q&A with Erika Johansen.
One morning in 2007, I woke up from a dream I could barely remember. The only image that really stuck was that of a group of people in ships going over a horizon, and the distinct idea that they had no idea what they would find on the other side. Fall of 2007 was a good time for me; I was in my second year of law school and felt that I was doing all right there. I had no idea that the financial collapse was less than a year away. The spirit in which I began this book was therefore one of extreme idealism. I wanted to write a book about a kingdom that was dying for leadership, and what would happen once that leadership came along.
Most of the role models in my life have come from fiction, rather than the real world, and when I began this book, I was conscious of feeling that so many of the female protagonists in contemporary mainstream fiction were either stunningly beautiful or almost obsessively invested in their romantic lives, or both. Most young women I know do not consider themselves to be stunningly beautiful – on the contrary, many grapple with issues surrounding their appearance, and I believe that for most women, focusing almost exclusively on romantic and sexual relationships is not a formula for long term fulfillment in life. While this setup makes for good escapist reading – an important thing – I don’t think such protagonists ultimately give most women anyone to look towards for inspiration.
I wanted to create a heroine who has all the problems of a normal young woman, but who also has her priorities straight. Kelsea worries about being plain and overweight in a society that values beauty; she also has a serious crush on an older and unreachable man. But while Kelsea feels these things keenly, neither of them ever takes the front seat, because she has more important problems to worry about – problems that impact lives beyond her own – and she simply doesn’t have time to dwell on her own romantic life. Whether Kelsea works as a heroine is for the reader to judge, but I’m at least confident that her priorities are in order.
In 2008, as the economy collapsed and the world got a bit darker, the book began to darken as well. By 2009, when my class was preparing to graduate and take the bar exam, law firms had more or less stopped hiring new lawyers. Even if we passed the bar, there were not going to be nearly enough jobs, and many of us were carrying crushing student debt. And so, almost by osmosis, the problems of the Tearling became much more unpleasant than I had originally conceived them, much more rooted in entrenched human greed and an endemic disregard for the misery of others. It was also around this time that I began thinking of the book not as a discrete story, but as only the beginning of a larger one. The Tearling’s problems were simply too complex to resolve in a single book, and I also suspected that a heroine as morally good as Kelsea simply couldn’t remain that way for long, not in such a nasty world. She would have to undergo a dark journey of the soul, just like the rest of us, and to do it justice would take far more than four hundred pages.
At that point, I also began to think more deeply about the Crossing itself. Originally, it was really a plot device: a tiny sliver of humanity had left its old home to make a new life in an unknown land. I chose this route because I really wanted to set the book in the future, rather than in the medieval past, and because I was so enraptured, still, with my dream image of the ships crossing the horizon. But the more I thought about it, the more interested I became in the conditions that would have pushed a group of people to cast off on a ship into an uncertain future. Was it possible that the world of the pre-Crossing past could have been even worse than that of the present-day Tearling? The more I thought about it, the more I thought it was not only possible, but likely, and I began looking for a way to tell the story of William Tear and his utopians, what they fled from and how their dreams of a clean slate could have gone so wrong. Essentially, I decided, the Crossing would come after the problems we currently face (poverty, greed, intolerance, lack of education, erosion of privacy) had been allowed to compound and fester in an increasingly technology-dependent world. And so I took my own stab at writing about America’s dystopian future.
Q.: Can you talk about the main characters in THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING – who they are, which ones are your favorites, and how you reveal them to the readers?
As a reader, I prefer to imagine the physical appearance of my characters, rather than be told, and this preference transfers to my writing. So for most of my characters, the physical description is sparse at best, limited only to what I feel the reader needs to know in order to follow along. I’m also committed to only revealing characters a piece at a time as it impacts the plot, so many of the characters’ motivations and origins remain ambiguous throughout the first book. My main characters are Kelsea, a Queen in training, but also an ordinary young woman who has to do the right thing in a difficult time. She’s guarded by Mace, a warrior who’s the Captain of her Guard. The Red Queen, ruler of the neighboring kingdom, who at first glance appears to be a nasty piece of work, but is, in fact, not the master of her own destiny. Javel, a guard on the Keep Gate, gets caught up in a plot that he wants no part of. My personal favorite character, Father Tyler, is a priest who slowly begins to realize that his church is rotten to the core.
Q.: How did you come up with the character of your heroine Kelsea Raleigh Glynn? A Queen in training who seems ordinary on the surface but holds great power inside her?
I generally find protagonists much less interesting when they’re extraordinary people to begin with. Ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations are far more interesting to me. Therefore, I wrote about a fairly ordinary girl who’s been placed in a situation she never asked for. (For more on Kelsea, see my attached “Behind the Book” essay)
Q.: The setting of THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING feels like a kingdom in Medieval England even though it takes place in the future. What kind of research did you do in order to get the details? The way people dress? The weapons they use? How they fight with each other? The way they make their money/sustain their way of life?
I didn’t research these topics. I felt that humanity would revert to agrarian society, certainly, and be forced to work with the materials at hand (wood, metal, stone, wool, etc.). But I also thought such a society in the future would be fundamentally different because humanity already had discovered electricity, created the printing press, used advanced weaponry. Although these things no longer exist for them, the knowledge that they once did would change everything. I’m sure my conception of this world’s clothing, weapons and organization was governed heavily by several novels and fantasy movies, but I also thought it would be a mistake to make it too authentically medieval, because that’s not what the Tearling is. Rather, I tried to imagine what humanity would look like if relatively modern people were abruptly thrown back into the seventeenth century. Whether it works is up to the reader.
Q.: Describe the hierarchy of the new society. Who is the Queen’s Guard, the Caden, the priests, the Mort hawks, and the landowners, those working the land? Where do women and children stand in the hierarchy? What is the Keep? The Arvath?
The Queen’s Guard, as the name suggests, guards the ruler of the Tearling. The Caden is a club of assassins. Anyone with a sword is basically more powerful than those who don’t have one. Outside of the ruling family, women have largely been relegated to traditional roles (mothers, wives, prostitutes). Those who work the land are entirely subservient to those who own the land. The Keep is the dwelling place of the royal family. The Arvath is the Tearling’s version of the Vatican.
Q.: How did the people completely lose their knowledge of technology? From medicine, to engineering, to electricity, to combustion and transportation, to telecommunications, and the Internet?
The Tearling was begun with a strong bias against technology. The settlers didn’t bring any with them. They haven’t lost the knowledge of what humanity used to possess, but they also have a longtime, almost superstitious fear of trying to recover it. (Readers can be assured that as they read the series, they will find out more about what happened to society before the Crossing).
Q.: In the book you talk about books as being extremely rare in the Tearling. Can you discuss how books and other writing started to disappear?
Books began to disappear before the Crossing. Barty and Carlin brought up Kelsea in the Tearling woods until she turned nineteen, the age of a Queen, and she had use of Carlin’s books in the house.
How had Carlin acquired all of her books? Paper books had been at a premium long before the Crossing; the transition to electronic books had decimated the publishing industry, and in the last two decades before the Crossing, many printed books had been destroyed altogether. According to Carlin, William Tear had only allowed his utopians to bring ten books apiece. Two thousand people with ten books each made twenty thousand books, and at least two thousand now stood on Carlin’s shelves. Kelsea had spent her entire life with Carlin’s library at her fingertips, taking it for granted, never understanding that it was invaluable in a world without books. Vandals might find the cottage, or even children searching for firewood. That was what had happened to most of the books that originally came over in the British-American Crossing: the desperate had burned them for fuel or warmth. Kelsea had always thought of Carlin’s library as a set piece, unified and immovable, but it wasn’t. Books could be moved.”
Q.: Magic, especially black magic, plays a very big role in the novel. The Tear Sapphire necklaces that Kelsea Glynn wears, that the Red Queen wants to get her hands on, bring to mind the Ring in the Lord of the Rings. Talk about the role magic plays in the books.
I’m not interested in magic for magic’s sake; thus the lack of magical creatures running around these books. I’m also usually more annoyed than charmed by rule-driven magic, in which the rules of and limitations on magic’s use become integral to the plot (J.K. Rowling is the lone exception for me). Rather, I’m interested in magic (such as Tolkien’s archetypal ring) that is powered by and works on the user. Magical jewels are certainly a fantasy trope by now, but I wanted to try to use them in a different way here. Kelsea cannot control her jewels, and doesn’t really even understand her jewels, but they are doing something to her. I was interested, but not fascinated, when a character put on Tolkien’s ring and became invisible. Fascination came when someone tried to let go of the ring and couldn’t. The little tricks one can do with magic are far less interesting to me than its darker effects.
Q.: What writers and books had the biggest influence on your writing of THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING?
Frank Herbert’s Dune is the big one. It’s science fiction, not fantasy, but at its base, Dune is the tale of a young scion who must recover his fallen house, and it has always been one of my favorite books. THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING is nowhere near as good as Dune, but I tried in my own way to perform some of the same tricks.
I also kept The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley, in mind. I wanted to write a fantasy book in which action and magic, while present, were subordinated to politics and interpersonal dynamics. I was also determined to write a strong female protagonist. Bradley accomplished both of these tricks to a marvel; those who like THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING should really go back and give The Mists of Avalon a look.
Terry Brooks’s The Elf Queen of Shannara. I enjoyed all of Brooks’s first seven Shannara books, but this one, about a tough but young and uncertain girl who must undertake a quest and prove herself worthy to be a queen, is my favorite. Brooks’s fantasy is always stuffed to the brim with magic and interesting creatures, but he also routinely forces his protagonists to take difficult personal journeys, and Wren Elessedil’s journey is one of the best.
Last but not least: Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon. Stephen King is my favorite author, and in my opinion, his lone stab at pure fantasy is also one of his finest books. Here we have a kingdom that, like the Tearling, has fallen under the sway of corruption from within. One of King’s great gifts is to make the reader feel that everything is at stake; in The Eyes of the Dragon, the entire kingdom may rise or fall based on a single act. The plotting is fantastic.
Q.: Can you give readers a little bit of a teaser of what will happen in book two and three of the series?
In Book 2, the reader will watch Mortmesne invade the Tearling, and see Kelsea’s situation grow bleaker by the day as the Mort draw closer to the city. The reader will also see events that led up to the Crossing, and why humanity took such a desperate gamble. In Book 3, by contrast, the reader will get to see what happened after the Crossing: how the Tearling was formed and how it degenerated. Meanwhile, Kelsea and the Red Queen will form an uneasy alliance against a greater adversary.
Thanks to HarperCollins, I have one FINISHED copy of THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING for one lucky US winner (prize will be shipped in July)! Just fill out the Rafflecopter below. Good luck!