Let’s Read Queen of the Tearling: Chapter Four

OK, I have a sad admission. I thought I was an ever-flowing fountain of hate but I started feeling more positive about all art while putting off writing about the terrible crap that is Queen of the Tearling. Hey, maybe I should write about something I appreciate! If I could get one person to read White as Snow or Megahex or Beauty—all of which I have read and enjoyed since beginning my Tearling takedown back in the fucking mists of fucking prehistoric time—that would be really cool!

I guess this happens. Does the great reservoir of hate run dry? Maybe this is part of growing up, you guys!

But I swore I’d finish this, and finishing what you’ve started is also part of being a grown person. Part of the problem is that Queen of the Tearling is so generically bad, it’s hard to engage with it to hate it at length. So I’ll keep the summary short. If you really need to know exactly what happens in each chapter, you can read it yourself and suffer like I did. There, now I’m in the mood to hate, let’s start!

Kelsea and the Mace dude leave the bandit camp. Kelsea thinks a lot about how she wants to bone the Douche. The Mace asks her about the Douche, turns out she saw his face, which is a big deal because he usually keeps on his dopey psuedo-Anonymous mask all the time (it must smell). Kelsea declares that she will never turn in the Douche to the law, the normally overbearing Mace is perfectly cool with his future dictatorial leader wanting to bone all over a criminal. They still don’t get to the capital. End of chapter.

OK, let’s talk about Kelsea and what a waste of meat she is. She hasn’t made any decisions yet, everything has happened to her. When she talks about how she wants to rule her kingdom, she’s parroting what other people have told her. She’s been really passive, but that’s about to change. She’s about to actually make a decision, all by herself. Yeah, I know, most people get to that point well before the age of nineteen, but good for her for starting somewhere, right?

So the first decision she makes is… that she won’t turn a criminal in because she thinks he’s hot. Not because the police are corrupt, or because this guy is doing Robin Hood-style good for the poor, or because she wants to co-opt him and use him as a spy. It’s because she wants to ride his dick.

If I were the Mace, I would just drag Kelsea into the woods and kill her, because isn’t this the way her horny mother acted—the mother who everyone denounced as an idiot and a slut?* I mean, damn, from what we’ve seen of this royal line they’re all dumber than bricks. Why is everybody cool with this? Doesn’t somebody else want the throne? I know this country is messed up but there’s no reason why somebody else couldn’t have a whack at it. (Supposedly the throne is dangerous but considering that this line of morons has stretched out for years, it couldn’t be that bad, because they’ve somehow managed to breed and pass the crown down.) At the least, the Mace could explain to Kelsea why this is probably not a great decision. That is, if he wants her to succeed as a ruler in her own right—maybe she’s supposed to be a puppet? That would seem to be the safer option, if this is the quality of Kelsea’s thought process.

Oh, I forgot, Kelsea is the protagonist and she’s a great heroine because she’s ugly and doesn’t like dresses. As long as she’s a stupid tomboy, it’s cool. If she was hot or liked to wear makeup, then her decision would be terrible simply because femininity taints everything around it. I hope this world is destroyed by an army of nuclear-powered genderqueers and transwomen.

* Implication alert: it’s acceptable for a criminal to run around the Tearling stealing whatever he can get his hands on, as long as Kelsea sits back and moans about how ugly she is and how she can never have her masked man. Putting one’s personal likes and dislikes above the law is just fine, but if Kelsea actually slept with this guy, then she would be evil, like her mother. According to Queen of the Tearling, a woman’s moral worth is entirely centered in her vagina.


Let’s Read Queen of the Tearling: Chapter Three, Part 2

Hey, I’m back. It’s been a while, but that’s what happens with Swamps of Despair. Queen of the Tearling feels endless, like it stretches out forever, even though it’s only a measly 434 pages or so. Let’s cheer up with some Limahl before we start!

Kelsea is hanging out with the Douche and his band, having dinner, which is perfectly lovely as somehow the bandits have the resources to bake bread and keep hens, despite their presumably persecuted existence. They even have mead, which Kelsea starts drinking despite her total inexperience with alcohol. You might think that getting wasted in a camp full of possibly hostile armed strangers would be a bad idea, but Kelsea is too busy worrying about whether the Douche–the guy who just threatened to kill her–thinks she’s fat.

She ate little. For the first time in a very long while, she was conscious of her weight… But now she pecked at her meal, not wanting them to think she was a glutton. Not wanting him to think so.

Yes, really. Really!

The black man, Lear (this is how he’s referred to in the text, really. Really!) tells the company the story of the White Ship. When it sunk, it took American medical expertise with it and…

What. Hold up? American medical expertise?

Oh, no. Every single part of this story so far has hinted that it’s your standard fantasy novel set in a cod-medieval kingdom. And now it’s a dystopia? Please, book, don’t get any worse on me.

Too late. It turns out that all that American medical expertise (rock, flag, and eeeeeagle) was lost because the idiot in charge of the ships on “the Crossing” put all the doctors on one ship. Well, that’s one way to do it. Maybe this is more of a idiot-topia than a dystopia. By the way, the one medical technology left is birth control, presumably so Kelsea can bang the Douche later without having to worry about kids. Reliable birth control has absolutely no influence on the status of women whatsoever except for excluding pesky brats from plots!

Douche and the Gang knock back some more mead and play some poker. The Douche asks Kelsea how she intends to reign. She answers that she intends to be just, educate her citizens, redistribute taxes, and reduce the influence of Mortmesne. It sounds like something a U.S. candidate for president might rattle off, so maybe that’s the American influence right there?

However, Kelsea doesn’t know the backstory of her kingdom, so the Douche makes Lear tell the readers, I mean Kelsea, the history of the Tearling. Back in the mists of time, 300 years ago, some Brits and Americans founded the Tearling after the Crossing, which still isn’t really explained. They wanted to live in peace and harmony in their new utopia, but unfortunately the land was poor as fuck. Somewhere to the east, some other people landed and started “New Europe.” New Europe was rich, because it had iron and “centuries of European knowledge.” How New Europe’s people were supposed to recreate all the technologies of the past with iron ore escapes me completely, but let’s just pretend that iron is also silicone, plastic, copper, gold, silver, and a bunch of other things besides. There’s no such thing as chemistry in an idiot-topia!

At some point, the infinitely horny-slash-evil Red Queen from the last chapter showed up, killed everyone decent in New Europe, and turned it into Mortmesne. She invaded all the other kingdoms, which immediately capitulated, except for the Tearling. Kelsea’s grandmother, Queen Arla, told the Red Queen to stuff it, and the Red Queen retaliated by invading the Tearling. It didn’t go well for the Tearling, mostly because they were fighting with caveman clubs while the Mort troops had gotten all the way to the Iron Age.

By the time Arla died, the Mort army had reached the walls of her castle. Her daughter,  Elyssa, signed the Mort Treaty and got the Mort troops to leave, so it’s a sort-of happy ending, although nobody is doing a particular amount of rejoicing over this treaty. Could something be suspicious here?

Kelsea asks what this story has to do with her. Uh, she is about to become queen, so she should probably know some of this very basic information about her own kingdom, but this obvious answer is sidestepped so the Douche can tell Kelsea that she’s brave, and smart, and generally an awesome person and he won’t kill her. But she needs to live up to her awesomeness! Or he’ll kill her! Even though he just said he wouldn’t! Oh, and by the way, he’s attacked the Regent a lot of times, but now that Kelsea’s of age, he can finally kill him. This dude is a peach, I’m telling you.

And the chapter ends. But I’m not done. I have a few questions here. I’ve read some reviews of Queen of the Tearling, and many people have noticed the book’s pseudo-feminism, but so far I haven’t seen anyone notice that there’s a gigantic vortex of racial weirdness at the heart of this story. And that needs to be fucking pointed out.

Let’s take a look at that history of the Tearling again. 300 years after this apocalypse, we’ve conveniently returned to the same ethnic makeup and rivalries that existed in Europe 300 years before the apocalypse, during the Napoleonic wars; the Anglo-Saxon Tearling are pitted against the vaguely French Mortmesne. Almost everyone fits into two racial categories: white and pasty, and white and swarthy. A darker-skinned person is rare enough to merit notice, a black person (and like I said, “black” is how he’s described in the text) is an amazing rarity.*

So. What the fuck happened to all the brown people? Considering the racial makeup of the present-day United States and United Kingdom, how the hell did a socialist utopian group of Americans and British folk not have a mixture of people colors?

The only logical conclusion is that the Tearling and its surrounding kingdoms were founded by socialist utopian white supremacists, an amalgamation of Stormfront and the Klan. Presumably this one black guy’s ancestors were segregated out from the pure stock. No miscegenation in the Tearling! Or maybe Sun Ra’s planet exists in the Tearling universe, and all the black people went there except this one guy.

Space is the place (for everyone except white fantasy characters)

OK, I don’t really think that Queen of the Tearling was intentionally written as a white supremacist screed. I have a hunch that the story was originally set in a European-based fantasy kingdom, but somebody up the chain said “Hey, dystopia is selling with the kids, look at those Hungry Games!” Johansen changed the setting to make it Our World, without ever thinking about the effect that the change would have on the book’s internal logic. Her characters just were always white by default, and white they stayed, despite the now extremely unfortunate implications, which perhaps she never even realized existed.
So I’ll be nice here. Erasing all non-white people from a postapocalyptic landscape based on the motherfucking Earth isn’t actively malicious. It’s just incredibly lazy and colossally ignorant!**

* Kelsea’s shock at the sight of a darker person could be read as a sign of her ignorance, but the rest of the story doesn’t support that interpretation; even when Kelsea moves into the wider world, the inhabitants are all white.

** Not to mention a tactic borne out of the basest sort of story-twisting greed. More white people means more dollars! Fantasy readers can’t handle non-white characters!


Let’s Read Queen of the Tearling: Chapter Three, Part 1

OK, everybody, this is the part where things start to get rough. I’m splitting Chapter 3 into two parts, because it’s a long trek through the Tearling swamps of misogyny, racism, and sadness. We may lose Artax in here. I’m just warning you.

artaxYou’re not going to see this guy for a while. Sorry.

Kelsea wakes up in the tent of the Mysterious Masked Man. Only now he’s without his mask. His face is “handsome” and his cheekbones are described, so he must be the love interest.

Where’s your handsome face today?”

I’m home now,” he replied easily. “No point in dressing up.”

Oooh, snappy repartee! Maybe this is going to be good!

Kelsea realizes that Now-Unmasked Romantic Interest Man has patched up the wound on her neck. She also realizes that while she was unconscious, someone has bathed her and changed her clothes.

She looked up at him, her cheeks reddening.

Yes, me as well.” His smile widened. “But you needn’t worry, girl. You’re far too plain for my taste.”

And now I realize that this is going to be pure shit. Yeah, this is our romantic interest, folks. The guy who tells our heroine that she’s too ugly to rape.

Kelsea, of course, is upset because he called her ugly. Not because he stripped her while she was knocked out. Not because he implied that he’d dick her while she was unconscious if only she was hotter. But because she’ll never be pretty enough for this total stranger douchebro.

Remember, this book is feminist! With a strong female character!

Douchebro notes that Kelsea has the King’s jewel, whatever the hell that is (I think it’s one of her sapphire necklaces), and tells Kelsea his name.

You may call me the Fetch.”

I’m going to call you the Douche, but whatever.

It turns out the Douche is wanted by the Regent for stealing a bunch of stuff. He’s a really good thief. Well, he would be if he wasn’t the Douche, but because he’s the Douche, that’s not good enough for him.

“The world is full of thieves. If anything, I am the father of thieves.”

And a pretentious twit. Dread Pirate Roberts, he ain’t.

westley

At least I’m not reading Queen of the Tearling

The Douche tells Kelsea that the Regent has set a price on her head, and draws his knife. Kelsea counters by promising to pardon him if she reaches the throne, then asks why the Douche has a low opinion of her mother. The Douche calls her “girl” as an insult several times, then refuses to tell Kelsea anything because we aren’t allowed to have any backstory. He then starts applying some salve to her wound. Kelsea gets all hot over this, then is ashamed of herself. She has a crush on him! But he cannot know!

In her irritation, she snaps at the Douche to just kill her already and stop going on about it. I’m cool with this, as long as it turns into a murder-suicide, but the Douche is impressed by her spirit. He expresses his approval by shit-talking Kelsea’s mom and asking her who her dad was. Kelsea doesn’t know and doesn’t care, while everybody else doesn’t know and does care.

I have to say that’s it’s pretty cool that Queen Elyssa didn’t have to marry to produce an heir, or even have to name the father. Then again, Elyssa is portrayed as a vapid hobag and Kelsea gets constant shit just for being female, so I don’t know what the hell is going on here. I think the lesson is that it’s OK to be constantly judged by men because you have a vagina, but it’s not OK to let a man put his penis inside your vagina for pleasure. That would make you a bad person!

Anyway, the Douche approves of Kelsea because she didn’t beg for her life. Kelsea wonders what keeps the Douche and his band of nozzles together.

That’s a perceptive question, so of course you’ll get no answer.”

Since he can’t menace Kelsea any further, the Douche sweeps out of the tent.

Kelsea ponders her attraction to the Douche.

She wasn’t fool enough to miss the danger here: a man who was handsome, intelligent, and more than slightly bad. Not all of Carlin’s books had been nonfiction.

Oh, Kelsea, honey. The bad boy isn’t supposed to be bad to you. What kind of books did Carlin have on her shelves, anyway? Was she a fan of 1970s romance novels? 50 Shades of Grey?

Kelsea decides that there’s no danger in the situation, because she’s so ugly, and she knows because the Douche said so. She puts on some baggy men’s clothes, but that doesn’t even matter because she’s soooo ugly, and goes into the outlaws’ camp.

At first glance, Kelsea would have taken the camp for that of a circus troupe; several tents dyed gaudy shades of red, yellow, and blue, situated around a stone fire pit.

Wait a second, I thought they didn’t even have bricks in this country. Where the hell did these guys get all that expensive dye? And why did they waste it on tents? You know, the tents in their secret outlaw camp. Which apparently is in one place all the damn time, because they’ve bothered to spruce the place up with a stone fire pit.

Godmotherfuckingdammit why are all these motherfuckers so goddamn stupid? Why? Why?

Ahem.

Kelsea meets some more of the merry douchenozzle band.

The third man was black, which gave Kelsea pause for a moment. She’d never seen a black person before, and she was fascinated by the man’s skin, which gleamed in the sunlight.

Oy vey. We’ll go into this later. Part 2, you guys. Part 2.

Kelsea realizes that the outlaws probably don’t actually want to kill her, because they hate her Wicked Uncle very much and killing her would just prolong his reign. She visits the Mace, who is now a bound captive. She complains to the Mace that nobody will tell her anything and that it’s hampering her ability to make decisions. The Mace doesn’t give a shit.

What if I order you to tell me?”

Order away, Lady, and see how far you get.”

Kelsea backs down, because once you’ve been marked as female there’s no use ever trying to exercise any sort of power. It turns out that the Mace knows how to escape his bonds, and is planning his escape. Kelsea asks him to be the captain of her Guard, because she really wants a captain of the guard that personally denigrates her and won’t obey her orders, I guess.

Then she sees him again… the Douche.

Not just a thief, but a murderer as well. Beneath the handsome man, Kelsea sensed another man, a terrible one, with a life as black as the water in an ice-covered lake. A murderer many, many times.

The idea should have brought horror. Kelsea waited for a long moment, but what came instead was an even worse realization; it didn’t matter at all.


Let’s Read Queen of the Tearling: Chapter Two

Viewpoint change! The Red Queen of Mortmesne is waking from a nightmare. She’s been having dreams about “Queen Elyssa’s child” for a while now. These dreams also involve fires and a strange, gray man, but the Red Queen focuses on the girl we readers know to be Kelsea.

In the Queen’s dreams she was sturdy and dark haired, with a strong, determined face and her mother’s green Raleigh eyes. But unlike Elyssa, she was a plain thing, and somehow that seemed the worst detail of all, the one that conveyed the most reality.

So a woman is “real” or not depending on her level of attractiveness. Fuck you, book.

A thick, guttural sound came from behind her, and the Queen whirled around. But it was only the slave in her bed. She had forgotten about him. He’d performed well, and she’d kept him for the night; a good fuck chased the dreams right away.

Ah, yes, let’s conflate the evils of slavery with the evils of female orgasms. Fuck you again, book.*

The Red Queen considers asking some no-doubt evil dark thing about her dreams, but decides not to. She wonders where on earth Kelsea is hidden, and worries that she can’t see Kelsea’s sapphire necklace in her dreams. Then she decides to get on down with cartoon evil again, because her slave is snoring. By the way, the slave has “dark skin,” which is a sign of “Mort blood.” Oh, hey, Mortmesne is the evil kingdom, right?

Fuck you with a chainsaw, book.

So anyway, the Red Queen deals with her snoring slave by literally choosing between a red and a black button, like the fucking “Space Madness” episode of Ren and Stimpy.

Sadly, she doesn’t choose the red button and erase the book’s universe, but presses the black button, which calls her guards to her room. She instructs the guards to tear out the slave’s tongue and uvula and sever his vocal cords. Then they can give him to some woman as a human sex toy.

I get it, I get it, liking cock is a blazing sign of evil. This is like The Evil Queen: A Pornolexicology for slow readers. Now that we’ve established the definite link between women who have orgasms and history’s greatest monsters, the Red Queen chortles a bit over how she’ll have Kelsea’s head and necklaces, and goes back to bed.

And we’re back to Kelsea!

Our heroine notices that her sapphire necklace is glowing. So far, this jewel is doing jack shit other than being purty and glowy, but I assume that it will show its powers at some point. As Diana Wynne Jones says in her wonderful Tough Guide to Fantasyland, “The Rule is that it all has magical purpose… If you are lucky, your mother’s ring will merely bring out your latent talent.”

Magic, Kelsea thought wonderingly, staring at the cerulean light. Like something out of Carlin’s books.

Was Carlin a fan of Anne Bishop, I wonder?

The guards notice that they’re all being followed, and the party splits so that Kelsea and the Mace can have a chance of making it to the Keep. Kelsea gallops through some farmland on her mighty steed,** noticing the workers in the fields as she passes. All the farmhands are starved half to death and persecuted by brutal overseers. The Tearling apparently was supposed to be socialist at its founding, but it now has a system comparable to serfdom. The land is so resource- and money-poor that Kelsea gawps at a noble’s brick house, as even bricks are luxury goods.

More giant hawks attack, and one gashes Kelsea’s neck. Kelsea and the Mace change course, but then they’re pursued by Caden assassins. The Caden are recognizable by their bright red cloaks, which they wear because the Tearling has a magical depressive effect on IQ points.

The Mace manages to kill off the Caden, but then another group of pursuers show up, wearing black cloaks. Maybe try going without cloaks next time, you guys? One of these pursuers catches Kelsea.

A face loomed just above hers, a face the color of pale death with fathomless black holes for eyes and a bloodstained mouth…

Ooooooh scary! Fortunately it’s just a mask.

500px-Assassin's_Creed_Brotherhood_Harlequin_TrailerThe Mysterious Masked Man ties up the Mace and drags him and Kelsea off, as there are more Caden coming (easy enough to spot them, I suppose). The black cloaks ride toward a river, and Kelsea wonders how they’re all going to cross when this happens.

But when she opened her eyes, she found they were incomprehensibly crossing the river, the horses’ hooves splashing with each step, yet striking solid ground.

Whut.

So her horse just trotted across the water, like an equine Jesus. Is this going to come up later? Is Kelsea going to be like, “Hey, you know, I’m kind of sheltered but generally heavier things sink in water? Like, you know, horses? Also, what’s up with this glowing jewel, you guys?” Nope, Kelsea just shrugs it off.

The day had been full of wonders.

Ask some questions, you ninny!

The horsey magic trick does throw the Caden off the trail, leaving Kelsea and her one guard alone with their captors. Mysterious Masked Man shows up again, and Kelsea finally finds a bit of a voice.

“Who are you?”

“I am the long death of the Tearling. Forgive us.”

OH FUCK, DARKSTAR HAS SOME COMPETITION YOU GUYS.

800px-Darkstar_by_arkoniel

“Men call me Darkstar and I am of the–what? What did that masked guy just say? I’ve been outposed!”

Kelsea passes out from blood loss, which is the only sensible thing to do when holding a conversation with the Mysterious Masked Man. Blessed unconsciousness!

* The authorial use of “fuck” does startle me, considering the previous YA-friendly tone. Are the characters cursing because Johansen didn’t want her books on the YA shelves?

** The horses, outside of their unusually low sex drive, seem to be of the breed described by Jones in the Tough Guide, which “can be used like bicycles and usually are.” I have a feeling that I will be consulting Ms. Jones’s guidebook a lot in my travels through the Tearling.


Let’s Read Queen of the Tearling: Chapter One

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?


Let’s Read Queen of the Tearling: Introduction

Finally, it’s happened! I’ve finally found a book that I want to share with everybody, chapter by chapter. Because I want you to suffer like I suffered, er, I mean I love you all so much. That’s right. Come, Internet friends and strangers, let’s read The Queen of the Tearling.

To set the stage: The Queen of the Tearling is a fantasy novel. It has all the elements of your traditional, YA-ish fantasy novel—a young heroine, a kingdom, a concrete enemy, etc. The Queen of the Tearling is also kind of a big deal. Of course, Queen of the Tearling is the first book of a trilogy, but in addition the movie rights have already been sold and Famous Harry Potter Actress Emma Watson will portray the titular queen. (The movie deal plays heavily into the marketing of the book.) The author, Erika Johansen, earned a seven-figure advance for the series despite publishing being in the worst of its seemingly eternal monetary death throes. Johansen has given many interviews about how her book is unique because of its plain heroine and lack of romance—this sort-of feminist angle, like the movie, is a conspicuous part of the book’s publicity. Johansen is also a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, so she should know the basics, like how to construct a plot and how to construct a sentence.

I didn’t know most of this information when I picked up Queen of the Tearling. I was facing a long flight and wanted something engaging to pass the time. The parts of the book jacket that aren’t devoted to the movie deal promise “thrilling adventure and action, dark magic, mystery and romance.” So I expected certain elements: intrigue, swordplay, daring women, mysterious men, perhaps some spiffy magic and everything tied up with a kiss or maybe a really awesome fight. Or both at the same time! Something along the lines of The Privilege of the Sword or the fantasy version of a Vorkosigan novel. Even if it wasn’t up to those books’ standard—and not much is, frankly—I expected it to be at least competently told and not stupidly offensive.

You failed, Queen of the Tearling, oh, how you failed.

Normally I’m a very lazy person and will dedicate slivers of my time to whatever catches my fancy at the moment. But there’s so much hype around this book, and it’s so dreadful, and it’s so dreadful in particular ways that reveal a lot about the current realities of speculative fiction, that I’ve decided to look at it more closely. Many books are just bad, but it’s rare that you get a book that fails at almost every objective it sets for itself. It’s a completely self-unaware text. In an odd way, I feel like I need to celebrate The Queen of the Tearling, because it’s not that often that stories like this come along.

The Queen of the Tearling might be so very dreadful that it rips apart space and time, people. All right, maybe it’s not quite that powerful, but it might be so dreadful that it kills off the current fantasy fad itself. And perhaps that’s a good thing.

So, without further ado, let’s read!

 


Having Thoughts on Arianne

Somebody very important has gone missing! Specifically, it’s Arianne Martell. She’s missing from the Game of Thrones season 5 casting list, and people are angry. Some of the complaints are because Arianne is a strong female character.

Reaaaaally? Is it possible that George R.R. Martin really created a strong female character?

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Like, a real one? Or one who can twist her butt in line with her boobs? Cause that doesn’t count.

Arianne Martell is female, and she’s a character. Past that, I can’t really say. In theory, Dorne’s gender-equal inheritance system makes Arianne a possible symbol of female empowerment. In practice, Arianne spends most of her time 1. mindlessly fretting about her chances of succession and 2. making incredibly stupid choices because of her insecurity. In her main plot arc, she spends most of her time botching her plans and thinking about how much she wants to bang some emo knight. This knight has silver hair striped with black. He has purple eyes! He rides a unicorn! OK, I made that last part up. But he actually says, “Men call me Darkstar, and I am of the night.” Oh, for fuck’s sake!

Was he born evil with the eyes of a cat, though?

I’d be able to forgive if Arianne just had a weakness for Darkstar, the sparkly dude from seventh grade fanfiction, but unfortunately she has few other redeeming qualities. Despite supposedly being raised to become the leader of a large and powerful kingdom, she’s hotheaded, immune to reason, and thinks that she’s smarter than she really is. Then again, plenty of princes share the same flaws. Why condemn Arianne?

What really kills Arianne as a “lady-power!” character is not her temper or her choice in men, it’s that her authority derives from her power to seduce men into going along with her plans. She desperately wants to be a leader, but she’s unable to exercise authority without acting through a man she’s slept with. (She’s also easily defeated by any male authority figure.) Arianne’s powers come from the mysteries of her all-powerful body, rather than from, you know, being a goddamn princess anointed by the holy hands of the deities. She comes across as less a potential player than a neckbeard fantasy—the woman who, by the power of her sex alone, leads “good guys” to ruin, the treacherous Dark “M’Lady.” She’s a bit similar to Cersei, really, except that Cersei was trapped in a bad marriage and was raised to be a queen-wife, not a queen in her own right. Arianne doesn’t get that excuse.*

It doesn’t help that Martin writes Arianne as if he’s letching over the character through her own thoughts, so that Arianne is constantly musing about her appearance and sexual experiences when she should be thinking about developing a step two for her latest cunning plan. Poor Arianne, perhaps she isn’t stupid, she’s just written that way.

As for Arianne’s disappearance from our screens—well, plot-wise, Arianne’s doings don’t seem to connect to any of the show’s emphasized storylines, so I wouldn’t be surprised if her story was cut for expediency’s sake. I’m sure that, were there world enough and time, Arianne would be included, mainly because she gets her tits out a lot. However, there’s always the hottie Sand Snakes of Dorne, and they have tits and weaponry.** Sorry, Arianne.

* Biological aside #1: How do these characters have so much sex and so few babies? There’s no plastic, so no proper barrier methods, and no birth control pill. There’s some sort of mysterious, nasty-tasting abortifacient, but taking it regularly would be probably be unpleasant at best and dangerous at worst. Yet young, unmarried women keep having raw sex in a patriarchal society which harshly punishes bastardy. It all seems to work in the “sexy female characters can have lots of sex because they are old enough to wank over, but they can’t have kids because they’re not old enough for me, the author, to think of them as mothers” sort of way. Why can’t we do something new? Maybe Arianne could go around birthing bastards and granting them titles? Or we could read Mary Gentle instead.

** Biological aside #2: All the racial, gender, and historical issues aside, one of the biggest fantasies that Game of Thrones peddles is the fantasy that despite centuries of inbreeding, almost every noble character is still physically attractive by 21st-century standards. Of course, almost every female character is basically a lingerie model, but it even holds true for the men—you don’t hear about stubby legs, bad eyes, or gigantic chins. Even generations of Targaryen brother-sister incest results in “smoking hot Caucasian elves with mystickal purple eyes and silver hair” as opposed to “holy shit, how did that get out of a uterus alive.” In reality, Tyrion might be one of the more attractive specimens, and not just because he refrains from spitting game about “the night” at the ladies.


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