Technically, this isn’t part of Chapter One, but the book begins with the traditional Left-Justified Fantasy Map. The Tearling, is to the farthest west and north possible, of course. Some other randomly-named kingdoms are to the south and east, the canonically evil cardinal directions! I wonder if swarthy people live there.
All right, on to the text.
The chapter begins with a quote from a Tearling history book, detailing a bit of our queenly heroine’s biography. I like this technique, although it does somewhat spoil the suspense about Kelsea’s lifespan. Oh, and our heroine is named Kelsea. Kelsea Raleigh Glynn. Things are not looking up.
The proper story starts with Kelsea sitting in the trees around her home deep in the forest, watching as riders make their way up to her cottage. Barty, who lives in the cottage and is presumably her guardian, has told her to go into the woods as she’s unlikely to go outside for some time after she becomes queen.
The captain of the late queen’s guard arrives and tells Barty to hand Kelsea over. Kelsea is worried about the guard and thinks that they don’t respect her, as she doesn’t look like a queen. Her mother, Queen Elyssa, was blonde and tall, a “classic Tearling beauty.” So we know that Kelsea is insecure about her looks, like every female character ever written to be sympathetic, and that the Tearling is probably full of fantasy Northern European people.
The guards check Kelsea’s authenticity. They can tell she is the true heir because of a scar on her arm (reproducible) and the sapphire she wears around her neck (replaceable), but apparently those two proofs are enough. It’s her nineteenth birthday, and therefore she’s ready to become queen.
The Queen’s Guard would cart her back to the Keep screaming and kicking, if need be, and imprison her on the throne, and there she would sit, hung with velvet and silk, until she was assassinated.
Sounds like a nasty fate, although we haven’t heard about any other assassinated Tearling monarchs yet. Still, this is a vivid image of the horrors of passive queendom. See, book, I don’t want to throw you into an industrial-grade shredder! Yet.
Kelsea’s other guardian, Carlin, appears to offer a bit of instruction before the guards haul Kelsea away. The regal Carlin taught Kelsea all she knew, languages and literature, and instilled Kelsea with her love of books. Carlin tells Kelsea to beware of her wicked uncle, the Regent—isn’t there always one?—and then tells her that things at the Keep (the main palace, I guess) aren’t all that they seem. This isn’t very useful advice, as it turns out that Carlin and Barty have sworn not to tell Kelsea anything about her mother’s reign. In fact, Kelsea has been kept from socializing from anyone other than her guardians.
She had been kept from the village and the answers it might have provided; hers had been a true childhood in exile.
So Kelsea has no recent knowledge of her own land. In addition, she’s never met anyone outside her extremely small adoptive family. This seems like a very poor education for a future monarch, who will need the social skills to manage a court and exert command. Unless this is one of those countries where the monarch can be drooling mad and it doesn’t matter as long as there’s a symbol on the throne. But then why all this bother about scars and jewels?
The guards set off with poor, unsocialized Kelsea. Kelsea begins to differentiate the guards. One, Lazarus, carries a mace, and another has red hair, which is apparently very shocking in the Tearling as it has “bred out” ever since “the Crossing” 300 years ago.
Oh, for fuck’s sake. Can I go one fantasy book without a mysterious redhead? Just one? At least this mysterious redhead is a man. Mysterious redhead also wears a crucifix, which shows that he’s loyal to God’s Church. Guess this is one of those lands with one religion. Carlin has told Kelsea not to trust the Church, which would be edgy if established churches weren’t dodgy in, oh, just about every fantasy novel ever.
Carroll is the leader of the guards. Kelsea wonders if she can win his and the other guards’ loyalty.
They thought her weak. Perhaps they thought all women so.
Uh, Kelsea, your mother was queen? And Kelsea inherited the crown, not her uncle. The Tearling seems to have a tradition of female leadership. Whatever the guards’ personal misogyny, Kelsea is unlikely to lose the lose the crown because of her gender.
Lazarus, the dude with the mace, shows up. Kelsea asks him why they gave her a mare to ride, while all the others ride stallions. She wonders if they think she’s a wuss. What do they think she’s been doing out here in the woods all this time, she asks?
“Playing with dolls, Lady. Putting up your hair. Trying on dresses, perhaps.”
“Do I look like a girl’s girl to you, Lazarus? […] Do I look like I spend hours in front of the mirror?”
“Not in the slightest.”
Sick burn! It turns out Kelsea is sensitive about her appearance because she once saw her reflection in a pool of water years ago and decided that she was ugly. Nobody told her that she was ugly, mind you—not that there was much of anybody there to tell her, what with her almost total isolation. But she has low self-esteem because that’s what heroines have. Odds on everybody else, and especially the guy she likes, thinking that she’s hot?
I’m sticking with this passage because it’s an early example of Johansen’s weaknesses as a writer. First, there’s the insinuation that Kelsea would be a silly, worthless person if she had liked dolls or dresses while growing up, because ew, girl stuff is icky! Second, why are Kelsea’s guards riding stallions, anyway? Wouldn’t geldings or other mares be a better choice, eliminating the chance of stallions fighting or a rogue stallion going after Kelsea’s mare? Are the guards trying to assassinate Kelsea using the horny horse method? Or is Johansen ignoring animal biology so she can make a lame, pseudo-feminist point?
I’m going to go with the latter here. Sigh.
Kelsea turns in for the night, while her guards gossip outside her tent. Keep quiet, you idiots! Anyway, while unpacking her bag Kelsea finds a gift from Carlin—another sapphire necklace. She stashes it away.
The next day, Kelsea continues her journey with her guards, who continue to put her down. Kelsea decides to earn their respect by… building a tent? Isn’t not having to do that shit part of being royalty? Even if a royal wanted to wrangle with a tent, it harms the concept of royal dignity to do menial tasks and insults the dignity of royalty’s no-doubt innumerable servants, who are supposed to be proud to serve (even if they aren’t, really). Shouldn’t someone have taught Kelsea those concepts? I’m looking at you, Carlin.
Never mind, everyone has their ways of burning off tension, maybe tent-building is Kelsea’s. A giant hawk attacks, and one of the guards explains that it was probably sent by Wicked Uncle and the Red Queen, who rules the neighboring kingdom, Mortmesne.
No one knew who she was, or where she came from, but she had become a powerful monarch, presiding over a long and bloody reign for well over a century now.
Oooh, an evil, immortal queen. So unique. But there’s more! Someone is pursuing our heroine!
“My guess is, we have Caden behind us.”
“The assassins’ guild?”
A mercenary guild. Even more unique.
In the face of these threats, Kelsea asks guard leader Carroll if he’s loyal to her. Turns out he’s more loyal to his kids than to her, and depending on how things turn out he may turn to Wicked Uncle’s side once he reaches the Keep. At night, the rest of the guards get drunk round the blazing campfire. These are terrible, terrible guards.
Kelsea tries to take advantage of their loosened tongues to glean information about her mother and the current state of the Tearling, but just like Barty and Carlin, the guards have to withhold plot information are sworn to secrecy. Kelsea has always thought of her mother as good and kind, and the guards’ secrecy makes her suspicious.
The guards are willing to discuss the Red Queen, and whether she’s a witch. Wicked Uncle may have made an alliance with her, after all, although they don’t really know. They tell Kelsea about the invasion of the Tearling by Mortmesne. Right before Kelsea was born, the Mort tore through the land, making it to the capital before suddenly retreating.
“The Crithe was wholesale slaughter. Tear villagers armed with wooden clubs fought Mort soldiers armed with iron and steel, and when the men were dead every female between five and eighty–”
Aaaaaand we have rape, yay! Also, the Tear seems to be terribly technologically backward, relying on wooden weaponry while its neighbor is able to produce steel. This may be a problem.
Kelsea is upset by the horrible tales of the invasion, and is kept from sleep by thoughts of slaughtered children and raped women.
End of chapter. This isn’t going well so far, although it still has time to redeem itself. Kelsea is a bit of a cipher, but I suppose someone who’s basically been raised as a hostage would be somewhat… unformed. Also, I’m 40 pages along and our heroine hasn’t even gotten to the capital yet, much less the promised deadly throne. Are we there yet?