Queen of the Tearling, and the Problem with Fantasy

Review copy

I (three) don’t say this lightly, but today I’m saying it: Queen of the Tearling is a near-perfect book. In order for me to explain why, I have to start at the beginning – and by that I mean my early childhood.

We were bookworms growing up. Our parents read – our dad read fantasy and thriller, and our mom read romance and contemporary. In our house, you had a book on the go, at all times. Our parents didn’t often judge what we were reading, aside from whether it was below our level or whether we should maybe read a new book instead of picking up the same one for the seventeenth time in a row.

I remember coming home with a Scholastic order form one particular year. Our mom took erm’s and ordered a few things that were out of our ordinary (we were really into Unicorns of Balinor), one of which was Redwall. erm wasn’t thrilled about it. It was a boy book. You could just tell by looking at it. The colour scheme, the concept, the writing style – this was for boys.

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erm read it. I’ll have to ask her why, because I can’t remember, but she did. And as I’m sure other Younger Siblings know all too well, I was then compelled to read it too. I didn’t want to. I fought it off. I wasn’t interested. It looked boring and it wasn’t for me. But she forced it on me, and I read it, and it was among the most fun books I’d ever read. In fact, this series got put on our regular reread rotation.

Other books erm forced me to read: Harry Potter. Game of Thrones. i.e. my two most favourite series of all time. But I didn’t want to pick them up when I first saw them, because the covers did not appeal to me – they looked like they were for somebody else.

Until recently, I was loath to say I liked the fantasy genre, despite the fact that my most favourite books were fantasy. When you go to the bookstore and look at the fantasy shelf, what do you see? Red, black, yellow, and blue. Big titles in serif fonts. Men’s names in large type. Images of men and animals.

Excuse me while I yawn forever.

Any person who identifies as feminine does not feel welcome here. And look, I’m as annoyed by “boy and girl” marketing as everyone else is, but I don’t think the answer is to just make everything look like a sausage fest. Why shouldn’t every genre be a combination of masculine, feminine, androgynous book covers? At least until we as a society get over sexism entirely, this is what needs to happen.

So I’m just going to come out and say it: I like girly things, and pretty books make me happy. Please, for the love of christ, market some fantasy books to me because I LIKE READING THEM.

But why does the cover matter, if I’m enjoying what’s on the inside so much? Consider what these covers say about the publishers, and their opinion of the fantasy genre. Publishers don’t think women are buying fantasy. That means that they aren’t looking for fantasy books that appeal to women in content, either. If I had only ever read Game of Thrones I might think that fantasy was a genre saturated by female badasses (and lots of rape, but anyway) when in reality, GRRM is a stand-out in the amount of women he chose to include in his epic. Lack of female characters (especially you, Tolkein), is a big problem. For more about this, erm wrote a piece earlier about being forced to read The Hobbit. Check it out, because now it’s time to talk about Queen of the Tearling.

Queen of the Tearling UNDERSTANDS MY PAIN

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TADA! A fantasy book that isn’t ugly as sin.

It’s not all sparkle princess and ponies, either. It’s still red and yellow, but it’s got aesthetically pleasing fonts and decorations. Also, the very title seems to imply that there might actually be a woman in the story. Imagine that.

So who forced me to read this fantasy book, you ask? An overly-friendly bookstore employee, I answer. I was perusing the fantasy section, looking for something that seemed fun and not YAWN, and he caught me (at least it felt that way, because they might as well have had a “no girls allowed” sign up.) He asked what in god’s name I was doing there, I admitted I was considering reading some fantasy and the only lead I had was that Terry Pratchett is my favourite, and he handed me this.

Thank you, overly-friendly bookstore employee. You’ve restored my faith in literature. But in the future, I don’t like to talk when I shop.

Synopsis

Queen of the Tearling is about 19-year-old Kelsea Raleigh Glynn, rightful heir to the Tearling throne. She was raised in secrecy a la Briar Rose, and the story begins with her being picked up and brought to her kingdom, so she can see it for the first time.

What she discovers upon her arrival is that her kingdom is awful, people are going to keep trying to kill her, and doing the right thing doesn’t always mean that no one will get hurt. And aside from a bunch of men ranging from incompetent old clowns to slimy hustlers, by far the most fearsome and powerful villain is the Queen of Mort. Another woman.

This. Is. Amazing.

Instead of telling you everything, just imagine if Game of Thrones was only about Danaerys and you’ll have a basic idea of the scope and complexity of this story. Now make Danaerys ugly, wickedly clever, and probably not mad, and that’s Kelsea.

Queen of the Tearling Checks Off All My Boxes

  • Female main character
  • Female villain
  • Multiple female side characters who are major badasses
  • Social, political, moral complexity – and the complex problems are acknowledged and handled, one way or another, by the narrative
  • GRRM-style moments when you truly know your characters are not safe – and real consequences for their decisions
  • GRRM-style moments where something incredible happens and you’re freaking out

This was just so much fun to read, an intellectual challenge, and a fantasy book that is unabashedly also for women.

Even within the story, Kelsea struggles to recommend an adventure story to a young girl, because she knows none of them have female characters. I kind of laughed it off as a weird fourth-wall breaking moment. But at the same time, I was excited, because I knew for a fact that this author got it.

PSA to Feminine Folks Out There:

If you loved Harry Potter but you’ve never tried out any other fantasy, do pick this book up and give it a read. If you don’t think you like fantasy, it might just be because the rest of it is so hypermasculine it’s impossible to enjoy. Not Queen of the Tearling, though, which is fantastic, well-written, complex, enchanting, and not as brutal as Game of Thrones. It’s absolutely worth a shot.

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