[Note: I read this book this past summer, and posted a review on my dreamwidth, I’d like to post it here as I realized I was going to compile a short review post of books I read this past year. I decided my short review of Queen of the Tearling would have no weight without this review I wrote about 60% of the way through the book.]
I am always looking for books featuring strong female protagonists. Not “strong” as in “beats people up and eats their bones” (although, I like that a lot), but strong as in well-developed and well-plotted character arc. I’ve seen a few people compare Queen of the Tearling to A Song of Ice and Fire, as well as Hunger Games, and A Girl of Fire and Thorns. Almost all of them claim that this is no young adult fantasy, and that it contains violence and languange that isn’t necessarily suitable for “young adults” (and Hunger Games was because…?). However, I am 64% of the way through it, and I am not enjoying it.
I would compare it more to Legend of the Seeker in the style of prose, and in the fact that the MC is clearly an author stand in for political views. While Legend of the Seeker grated on me for the 100 pages I did read due to its conservative bent, I expected I would eventually like the more socialist bent of Tearling. Not so. Dry prose that attempts to proselytize is dull prose either way.
The four big concerns I have with the politics, however, I feel deserve their own section.
OBLIGATORY SPOILER WARNING.
There are two kinds of sex work presented in the book. The first is that of sex slavery. The Regent has an extensive collection of women whom he thinks he is giving everything to, but are more of collectors pieces then humans to him. The second is the workers of “The Gut” or “The Blue District.”
Upon Kelsea learning of the first, she immediately began to think of ways to rescue the poor women her uncle kept in captivity. Upon learning of the second, she immediately started thinking of ways to make her socialist paradise so that the women could get “real jobs” (yes, that is a quote from the book.) She also briefly thought of criminalizing sex work before the voice of her guardian told her it was wrong to legislate morality.
Kelsea “freed” the “harem” her uncle collected (again, books wording). The one woman, Marguerite, was recruited into Kelsea’s household to be a nurse and babysitter to her ladies-in-waiting children. In one scene, the Regent comes back and sees her, and she comes and sits at the foot of Kelsea’s throne like she used to do for the Regent. She isn’t given a motive for this, or asked to explain this act, and Kelsea finds it weird. Kelsea also is baffled that Marguerite has the ability to be good with children and speak other languages. Since Kelsea is supposed to be a moral center of the book, the reader is also supposed to find this strange, and weird, and definitely not the norm. This sets Marguerite up to be The Model Sex Worker, or The Exception, not like those Other sex workers.
The reader also has contact with another “freed harem girl” who is seen to be telling the Regent off after her freeing, but is very concerned with the fact that her jewelry has been confiscated by The Crown. SHe is set up as a foil to Marguerite. Yes, she is happy she isn’t the property of the Regent anymore, but, ultimately, the reader is supposed to deduce that her complaint was that occassionally the Regent made her “lick Petra’s cunt” rather than all the pretty baubles she was given. She tells the Regent that she’s found a home at some other nobels place, but doesn’t elaborate what this position entails, and the reader is left to guess that it is sex work, still, as she is not given any other abilities or talents. Further, it was not she who sought out this new employment, but this other noble lord who asked her to come to him. Thus, she is still not a player in her own life, she is still without agency.
The last sex worker we meet is not given a name. She works in The Gut, and has no history, no story, no motivations. Thorne, a very important power broker, and, at this point, suspected to be a Big Bad, arranges to meet a very depressed gate guard at a bar. He talks this sex worker into poisoning the gate guards drink. Possibly bribes, very probably threatened. But somehow, he makes her an accomplice in his scheming. When the poisoned gate guard learns of this, she skrieks with laughter. I can only assume this is meant to convey the sex workers of The Gut to be nameless, opportunistic, and amoral.
While we might have been told as readers we could, if we wanted to, sympathize with the Regents “harem,” we should feel no such thing for those who voluntarily chose to do sex work.
The entire premise of this novel is that this is taking place in the future. SOMETHING bad happened, and all the Americans and Britains LEFT on a ship. To somewhere? Maybe it was a spaceship? Maybe it was a water ship? Either way, some new land was found (or was it? No mention of there being native peoples on this land has happened so far, but, welp, the British kinda don’t like mentioning native peoples and just kinda genocide them) and now they have somehow forgotten half of technology. However, despite the fact that, currently, America and England are not 100% white, the population of this nation, Tear, is so far all white save 2 men. There is another country that is largely inhabitaed by people of color.
This means that: 1.) Only white people moved, and this other country is comprised of people who were native to the land or 2.) everyone moved but segregated afterward, and it’s wishy washy on if there were native peoples.
This issue gets further complicated when one takes the authors remarks on the inspiration for this novel at face value. She claims she was inspired to write about an idealist who does manage to gain political power after watching a 2007 speech given by Barack Obama. Which…idealist isn’t the word I would use to describe him, but that is aside from the point. The point is that the main character, and all people she looks up to for guidance and support, idealist or not, are white. Your inspiration was a black man. See the problem?
I posted on twitter about this, but there is a lack of people of color.
The characters of the book posit that aside from a ship full of medical knowledge not making it, the major loss of knowledge comes from the fact that in the future book publishing does not exist because of ebooks. Publishing, here, to mean, the physical making of a book via printing press. Because everyone has ebooks, somehow this knowledge is lost, and when the emigrate to this new land, there aren’t many physical books to bring, and none of them happen to contain how to make more books. So the evil ebooks have caused the world to revert to medieval Europe, complete with fiefdoms and lords and ladies and monarchs.
I love my ereader. That is all I feel I should have to say on the subject.
I am all for a heroine who isn’t feminine. I am all for a heroine who is plain, or dowdy, or fat, or not classically beautiful. I love Alanna, who, while “passable” (according to George’s mother), mostly eschews dresses except for fun. I love Elisa, who is fat, and not afraid to embrace it. Yes, she loses a little weight while traveling among the Malefico, but she is still large, and does not let it concern her.
However, in this book, Kelsea, and, I assume, the author, broadly paint femininity as wrong. Elissa was concerned with dresses and hair, and that made her a bad ruler. The woman whom Kelsea takes a tiara from is called “a hussy” by Kelsea herself. Carlin chastises Kelsea for putting on a gown, and Kelsea later thinks very highly of Carlin for steering her away from gowns. Dresses are outright equated with vanity.
I am happy to have a heroine who wears armor and wields a sword. However, when Kelsea, and the entire cast of characters whom we are supposed to respect, consistently paint any signs of femininity as wrong and frivolous, it seems, frankly, misogynistic.
The patriarchy favors men who act out and perform a certain type of masculinity. While effeminate men might be able to have a little privilege, they are not afford the same degree and amount of privilege as men who are very masculine. Femininity is seen as weak, docile, and incompetent and unsuited for any major decision making.
This patriarchal line of thinking is carried throughout even if it is a woman espousing these views.