Let’s Read Queen of the Tearling: Wrap-Up

I spent an entire year of my life on this sucker and I feel like I owe it to myself, at least, to explain why this book irritated me so much. Part of it was that the book was sold as a feminist novel. Maybe I was asking too much of this book; maybe I made the mistake of relying on the packaging and not on the product itself. I mean, we live in a universe where this cover exists for Anna Karenina.

annakarenina

Guess what’s in Anna Karenina? Utopian Russian farming. Guess what’s not in Anna Karenina? Sexy knees.

But I digress. If a book calls itself “feminist,” I kind of expect that the ladies are going to be treated well as characters. The women are going to make choices, and these choices are going to have some sort of moral grounding (I don’t mean they adhere to any sort of moral framework, I mean that their actions have consequences, instead of the women all being Little Ladies whose main function is to look on at events and occasionally be rescued.) Also, maybe this is a personal preference in my feminism, but I don’t expect a feminist book to focus too much on the female lead’s personal appearance unless it makes sense.

The thing is, there are plenty of situations where focusing on a woman’s appearance makes sense. Everybody would rather be pretty than ugly, and women are forced to depend on their attractiveness in patriarchal societies, and low self-esteem about appearance is pretty common for YA heroines (it’s usually cured by the love of a hot vampire/werewolf/I don’t know, golem).

And this is a sort-of YA novel, after all: Johansen uses the exact same plotline as every other YA novel, where the heroine has trouble (or thinks she’ll have trouble) attracting the hottest guys because she’s so plain and powerless. Oh, except Johansen “subverts” the hot, dangerous older man falling in obsessive love with the “plain” young protagonist plotline by having the older man reject and insult the heroine, over and over. Because the problem with stuff like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey is that the heroes have too much respect for the heroines. Oy.

The other problem, apart from the constant belittling of the heroine, is that Johansen takes female beauty and the accompanying low self-esteem storyline and harps on it for the entire book, despite having managed to create the one narrative situation where this trope is wildly inappropriate. Kelsea leads a dirt-poor society in which the vast majority of people are serfs. They’re probably prematurely aged from nutrient deficiencies, diseases, and the horrors of war. We know that most of them can’t read, and they don’t have posters or illustrations or photographs to instruct them on any particular beauty standard. Their lives are hellish, but the one cynical advantage that Kelsea has is that peasants are going to be impressed by her appearance because she’s not crippled and covered in an inch-think layer of shit. None of them are going to think she’s fat or snark on her brow game.

But what about Kelsea’s peers? Well, technically, she doesn’t really have peers. Kelsea is an absolute ruler, and that level of power tends to make people more attractive. Granted, these people are more often men than women, but when a women manages to hold a position of high power, they can take advantage of it in just the same way. Look at Catherine the Great! Why do you think she died fucking a horse? It’s because she wore out all the people!*

Also, Kelsea is also an absolute ruler in a society in which power can descend through the female line. That means that whoever Kelsea chooses as her babydaddy—and it really could be anyone, considering that no one even knows who Kelsea’s father is—might be the father of the next ruler of the Tear. Kelsea could, like, not have a face and guys would still be throwing themselves at her.

So, whatever she actually looks like, Kelsea would treated as the hottest person in the kingdom and have her choice of lovers. That’s not to say that she would necessarily get a happily ever after, or even a happily for now—her situation is ripe for exploitation, especially because she’s so sheltered. But it’s highly unlikely that she would be insulted or rejected when men (and women!) have every incentive to find her attractive.

Instead, I read through page after page of men putting Kelsea down and Kelsea worrying about being too fat for her armor, along with a lot of animosity toward women who try to make themselves attractive. This is a book where everybody lives in a sick neofeudalist system, yet the only person in this horribly unjust system who is outright condemned is an older woman who has altered her face, cause, you know, we wouldn’t know serfdom was evil if some old nasty bitches weren’t involved.

I don’t know why Johansen didn’t play with the concept of absolute power and how that affects attraction. Maybe she thinks that a heroine who considers herself attractive, or just doesn’t prioritize her appearance, is unsympathetic. Or maybe she’s just a terrible worldbuilder. Or maybe a book isn’t “feminist” unless the heroine gets crapped on at regular intervals. (Seriously, how do you think that “oh, everyone really does think the heroine is ugly and treats her like shit even though she has powers of life and death” is an improvement over, say, Twilight?)


* Catherine the Great did not really die having sex with a horse. She did, however, have a penis table.

 

Let’s Read Queen of the Tearling: Chapter 14

Kelsea is back at the castle and busy copying books with Father Tyler, the nice old priest from the middle of the book. Evil Arlen Thorne is still running around, by the way, but Kelsea assumes that Mace will take care of him somehow, and anyway it won’t happen now because this is the last chapter of the book, thank God. Father Tyler tells her that the Tearling equivalent of the Pope is dying and that some nasty type is stepping up to take over, presumably to be the villain in the next book. Kelsea asks what this new baddie is like, but plot exposition is cut off by the Mace, who tells her to come out to the castle balcony.

Masses of people have gathered below because they want to hear her speak. Something else is waiting for her down there, as well.

After a moment, however, she noticed an odd treelike figure that poked high above the crowd. “My eyes are terrible. What is that?”

That, Lady, is a head on a pike,” replied Wellmer.

Whose head?”

Your uncle’s, Lady. I went down there just to make sure. The pike is hung with a placard that says ‘A gift for the Tear Queen, compliments of the Fetch.’ ”

A severed head, the gift every girl wants.

Despite the gruesome nature of the offering, Kelsea smiled. […] Wellmer continued. “The pike’s buried deep, so the crowd can’t get at it unless they brought shovels. The head is in immaculate condition, Lady; someone’s treated it with a fixative so it won’t rot.”

Useful lawn ornament,” Mace remarked.

Kelsea looked over the edge again, certain that the Fetch was down there now. He would have delivered the gift himself, hiding in plain sight. She wished she could see him, tell him that their bargain had borne even better fruit than he could have imagined.

Oh, it’s a treated severed head. How sweet. (Also, lawn ornament jokes have somehow survived into the postapocalyptic landscape. Maybe it’s time for another apocalypse, to get things right.)

Anyway, now that we’ve gotten past the trinket-giving, we can get to that mass of people (note how important it is that they don’t knock down the severed head, I suppose their avenging themselves upon their oppressor would spoil the exclusivity of our necro-romance.) They’re cheering and happy, and they want Kelsea to speak to them from the balcony, as her mother used to do.

Kelsea steps out onto the balcony, and announces that she is going to rename herself after her foster parents. Then she steps back inside. And that’s that.

All right, then. I imagine that the people below are grateful and proud that Kelsea has stopped the slave shipments. I imagine that they also are scared about the consequences and are looking to Kelsea for reassurance. What will happen next? Will they be safe? Will they have freedom? How can they fight for their new queen and hero?

And how does Kelsea answer? She tells the crowd that she’s going to rename herself after a pair of people that nobody else has ever heard of. We readers know that Carlin and Barty were decent-ish people, but there’s no indication that either of them were known to the public in any way, and even if they were nobody’s seen them in 19 years. Why on earth would anyone care about Kelsea’s new name? Aren’t there more important issues to address, like the end of bondage and the threat of all-consuming war?

But the crowd bursts into song, because this is at heart a narcissistic princess fantasy and the people exist only to boost Kelsea’s ego. Kelsea is quite gratified and has a vision spanning time and space and such and it’s not at all as interesting as that sounds, and she’s finally happy she’s queen and the book is over.

Let’s Read Queen of the Tearling: Chapter 13

Kelsea wakes up from days’ worth of magic exhaustion-induced sleep. After she passed out, her soldiers were able to wrap up the battle and free the slaves. They’re suitably impressed by her stormcalling abilities.

Kelsea’s black army uniform was streaked and stained with mud, and her hair was undoubtedly a mess, but they didn’t seem to care about that.

Oh my goodness, are we not freaking out about clothes and hair for once? Thank you, book Jesus!

They stood waiting, and after a moment Kelsea realized they weren’t waiting for orders from Mace. They were waiting for her.

Yes, finally Kelsea has some authority! Granted, it’s only through the power of magic but at least it’s there.

There’s some post-battle business to take care of. The Mace has sent most of the freed slaves back to their villages. A few were sent back to the capital in care of a guard to spread the good word about Kelsea.

I sent [the guard] back to New London, Lady, with several women who looked like they could use a shopping trip in the big city.”

Yeah, I’m sure that the first thing that these traumatized women want to do is go shopping. Also, why doesn’t Arlen Thorne attack these women so they can’t spread propaganda against him? They only have one guard with them, after all. Go for it, you evil bastard!

Kelsea has to deal with Javel, who didn’t try to run from Kelsea’s guards. He’s super ready to die, but Kelsea lets him live as she remembers him hacking at the bars of the slave cages. But wait! There’s another traitor in their midst!

It turns out that Mhurn—the guard who sassed Lady Andrews—was also the guard who was letting all those assassins get at Kelsea. He was addicted to opium, and someone was supplying him with the stuff. Well, not quite opium.

Not just opium, Lady,” Coryn remarked from the campfire. “High-grade morphiate. Someone took a lot of care to cook this stuff. We found needles as well.”

Wait a minute, they don’t even have enough iron for swords in this kingdom, and hardly anyone can read or write, but somehow the resources and knowledge exist to create hypodermic needles? What the fuck? I mean, two pages ago we were talking about a man who fell sick with a mysterious “lung complaint” and now we’re suddenly discussing 20th-century medical paraphernalia. Goddamn it, book, get your medical history straight!

Coryn, do you know how to inject him with that stuff?”

I’ve injected men with antibiotics before, Lady, but I know little of morphia.”

Oh, now there are antibiotics, too?

giphy

Kelsea proves that she’s a badass, executing Mhurn by slashing his throat. He’s cool with it, what with only becoming a traitor so that he could ride the dragon. That sounds suitably fantasy-ish, doesn’t it? OK, that’s just dorky.

On the way back to the capital, Kelsea and crew catch up with one of the supposedly ninja-like yet actually remarkably incompetent Caden assassins. The Caden don’t marry, but some of them have children with village women, and it looks like Thorn managed to snatch one of those children up in his raid. The Caden is grateful to Kelsea for saving his child and pledges to do her a favor in future. That’s nice. It won’t be in this book, because we’re almost done. Hooray!

But not quite yet. The Mace and Kelsea have a conversation in which the Mace offers to resign for having so royally fucked up his oversight of the Queen’s Guard. Kelsea refuses the resignation, upon which the Mace tells Kelsea that Barty and Carlin—remember them?—are dead. They took poison right after Kelsea left her cottage all those many chapters ago. As the Mace explains, Kelsea could be blackmailed by anyone who bothered to threaten her former guardians. All right, so far this scene is sad, but it’s surprisingly rational for Queen of the Tearling.

Then the Mace tells the story of how he first brought infant Kelsea to the cottage. Barty and Carlin both loved Kelsea at first sight, but…

Barty said, ‘Let me hold her.’ So the Lady Glynn handed you to him and then—I’ll never forget, Lady—she said, ‘From now on, it will be you…the love must come from you.’

Barty looked as baffled as I was, until she explained. ‘This is our great work, Barty. Children need love, but they also need stiffening, and you’ll be no help with that. Give her whatever she wants, and she’ll turn into her mother. She has to hate one of us, at least a little, so that she can walk out the door and not look back.’ ”

Uh… love doesn’t necessarily mean giving someone everything they want. And if Kelsea hated Carlin, wouldn’t there be a good chance that Kelsea would reject Carlin’s teachings? After all, Carlin will have to give Kelsea up to the great wide world when Kelsea is at the very age when she’ll want to rebel against authority—and the only authority she’ll have known til then is Carlin. Giving Kelsea the wire-monkey momma treatment isn’t going to solve anything. As far as I can tell, Carlin is just being a bitch, but in the narrative this decision is treated like some sort of great, wise sacrifice.

Oh, man. Am I missing some psychological detail here that would make this flashback make sense? At least the chapter is over.

Fantastic Suffering, or Why Are Protagonists Pummeled to a Pulp?

Busy reading Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy. I’m enjoying it, but I do wonder at the sheer amount of punishment that the she doles out to her hero, Fitz. Over the course of the three books, he’s been stabbed and beaten multiple times. And that’s just the brute force attacks—I shouldn’t forget the poisonings and the telepathic abuse!

Hobb hasn’t reached George R.R. Martin levels of dragging the plot out, but by the last book, the scenes of abuse have become tedious. It keeps happening, and I skip ahead to see who’s going to beat the crap out of Fitz next. “He just escaped from that set of psychopathic guards… Oh, he’s going to get captured and beat up by that nasty group of telepaths, isn’t he? For fuck’s sake, get to the dragons already!” (That should be my reading motto.)

I wonder if it’s a genre requirement for protagonists to experience pain and torture, over and over again.* I don’t know what to call it—the drama of the body? We anticipate the pain along with the protagonist, experience it in graphic detail, and “recover” alongside him or her. It certainly does get the reader to empathize with the protagonist. I also imagine that for many readers, extreme physical duress is an exotic experience, like handling a sword or singing as a bard. Maybe that’s why protagonists suffer such liberal amounts of agony.

Note that the aftermath is always handily fixed with herb paste or magic, and the poor sufferer is never injured in a way that makes him or her unattractive (unless they have done something truly nasty and need to expiate their sins through ugliness). No need for antibiotics or surgery, plastic or otherwise.

* The all-time champion must be the heroine of Sarah Micklem’s Firethorn books, who undergoes a whipping, a stabbing, a lightning strike, a drug withdrawal, and an honest-to-god snakebite poisoning, all in the course of a year or so.

Let’s Read Queen of the Tearling: Chapter 12, Part Two

The Evil Red Queen is standing in her turret of wickedness, gazing upon the lands below and fretting that she hasn’t found Kelsea yet. She can see all the borders of her land, from the Tear border to the west to the borders with other generic fantasy lands to the north and south. Wait a second, how high is this turret? Iron is a hot commodity in this world, so I’m assuming that there aren’t giant steel-and-glass skyscrapers dotting the landscape and this is your standard-issue medieval tower. Is Mortmesne really tiny? Does the Red Queen have magic sight? So many questions!

Apparently the Mort economy is so dependent on human shipments that the lapse of one shipment has caused internal unrest. Some young radicals are protesting, as are the Queen’s commanders. Oh, here come more questions. Why does the Mort economy need so many slaves, anyway? Do they run plantations? Are there just not a lot of Mort? Do they not have a permanent slave class, with children born into slavery? I’m surprised that Mortmesne has to kidnap all these people, frankly—you’d think that folks would voluntarily leave the shitty, starving Tearling to work in more technologically advanced, prosperous Mortmesne.

Anyway, the Evil Queen decides that she needs the aid of “the dark thing” to find Kelsea. She instructs her guard to drug a child and bring the child to her rooms. Oh, they probably need all these slaves for child sacrifice, right. Because slavery isn’t terrible in and of itself.

There’s a hint of backstory for the Evil Queen, something about her emerging from a prison stronger than before and some vague plan, so I suppose she is using evil spirits to prolong her life and overcome her past, yadda yadda. I wonder if Kelsea will be offered the same choice through her sapphires? Hmmmmm.

For some reason, the queen notes that one of her male guards is eying a female guard’s shapely posterior. I’m not sure why this matters, except that OH NO IT’S TIME FOR SEXUALLY DUBIOUS MAGIC.

She didn’t particularly like children; they made too much noise and demanded too much energy. She’d never wanted a child herself, not even when she was young.

Oh, my god, a woman who doesn’t want children! It’s a slippery slope from this perversion to associating with pedophiles and committing child sacrifice!

No, really.

There were several pedophiles in high positions in her military. The Queen felt a strange, sickly contempt for these men, unable to understand what was wrong with them […] But she needed them, needed them badly. When they weren’t being what they were, they were incredibly useful.

Why on earth are pedophiles so useful to our Evil Queen? The ready response is that she can blackmail them in case of emergency, but actually, it seems as if they’ve forgotten all about that and have started planning to overthrow her. The other reason that comes to mind is that 99.9 percent of the people who read this book define pedophilia as the most disgusting sexual perversion possible, so it’s being thrown in as a sort of local color. You know, in case you didn’t think some evil shit was going on already, let’s include pedophilia as well! The weird extension of this line of thinking is that what Mortmesne is doing is evil because of the private lives of its citizens; if the generals who previously invaded the Tearling and raped and slaughtered its population had respected the age of consent at home, I guess everything would have been cool.

Whatever. It’s time to stop asking questions and… get naked? Yes! The Evil Queen slashes her child sacrifice and sops some of the blood up with a towel. She then takes off her clothes to start her incantation.

The stone of the floor was hard and sharp, digging into her knees, but the dark thing liked that, just as it liked to have her naked […] If she kept her panties on, or put down a pillow to soften the floor, it would notice.

In my last post, I conceded the point that, while Johansen was including a lot of gratuitous evil violence against women in this chapter, at least it wasn’t gratuitous evil sexualized violence. Aw, damn, can we at least get through one chapter without some ludicrous fuckspell?

She leaned forward, as far as she dared, and threw the bloody towel into the fire. Despite the heat, her nipples, had hardened to tiny points, as though she were cold, or excited. Crackling sounds filled the room as the flames consumed the towel.

Innocent blood,” the dark thing remarked. “It is good to taste.”

Oh, well, I guess not. Also, this dark thing is cheesy as hell.

Dark thing and Evil Queen bicker a bit, and he hits her with a bolt of fire, so that her hip “squalled in agony.” What the fuck does that even mean? Anyway, this evil spirit not only makes words lose their meaning, he’s a looker, too.

When she looked up, the black mass in the air was gone. Instead, a man towered above her, handsome beyond words. His pure black hair swept back from a perfect patrician face, gaunt cheekbones offset by a thick, full-lipped mouth. A beautiful man, but the Queen wasn’t fooled by that beauty anymore. Red eyes glittered coldly down at her.*

Oh, he’s sexy evil, do you get it, everything to have to do with sex is vile and abusive and evil, we’re going to make sure this isn’t mistaken as YA by replacing the soppy romance with absolute sex negativity. Is this really what writing a “grown-up” book is about? This land needs some sexual healing, like the arrival of a magical fuck wizard. Like Annie Sprinkle, only wearing one of those princess cone hats.

The Evil Queen asks dark thing to help her, but the dark thing is like, eh, no, you can’t harm Kelsea. Why not? Who knows, but that does mean that the entire child murder ritual scene was for nothing. Well, it did kill the plot, because now we don’t even have a proper adversary for Kelsea. We know that the Evil Queen will fail if she attempts to kill Kelsea, and we don’t know dark thing’s plans well enough to see it as a proper threat.

We do get a loving description of what the spirit does to the child sacrifice, though. I’ll spare you the details—basically some vampire shit goes down and dark thing sasses Evil Queen a bit about how she’s not to touch a hair on Kelsea’s head. Again, why?

Who needs to know why, when you can enjoy this sort of deathless prose:

Harm the Tear heir, and you will feel my wrath, darker than your darkest dream. Do you wish that?”

The Queen shook her head frantically. Her nipples were rock-hard now, almost aching, and she moaned as the thing slithered off her, licking the last of the blood off its lips.

Well, at least we know exactly how hard this lady’s nipples got. And really, who needs a functioning plot when we have rock-hard nipples?

Dark thing goes back to its dark place.

Evil Queen looks at the remains of the child. It’s gross.

The Queen turned and ran for the bathroom, one hand clamped across her throat, her eyes wide and hunted.

She nearly made it.

Aaaaaaand end of chapter. Finally!

Isn’t that the most bathetic last line ever, though? I admit, the first time I read Queen of the Tearling, I was skimming by the end, and I thought that this last line meant that the Evil Queen had been caught by the spirit and destroyed—he was lurking somewhere and caught her when she was off guard. Big plot point, right? But on a re-reading, I think that it just means that the Evil Queen puked on the floor. I’m personally disgusted by vomit, but even I think this is an anticlimax. I mean, Johansen just thoroughly described sexual humiliation (including blood play!), Satanic worship, and the horrific murder of a child—but the real horror is that somebody was sick and missed the toilet. Won’t somebody think of the precious carpet fibers?

(A similar, slightly less ridiculous example of this sort of writing occurs in Chapter 10, which also involves Evil Sex—did Evil Uncle Thomas have sex with his sister and breed Kelsea? Is this a plot point, or confusion over the object of a verb? Ooof.)

* Digression: wouldn’t red eyes be incredibly unattractive? He’d look like a man-rabbit.