I should start by saying that I liked the first book in Erika Johansen’s fantasy trilogy, The Queen of the Tearling. While set amidst Ye Olde Tirede Fantasie Elements [princess raised in secrecy must ascend to throne and deal with treacherous nobles while fending off an evil, magical queen who threatens to invade], the book distinguished itself by considering how a young noble woman might fare, coming of age in such a setting. Frankly, I’m bored by princes Finding Their Destinies, but I read The Queen of the Tearling with interest, as it lavishes attention on protagonist Kelsea as she both rises to the challenges of her role and chafes at unfamiliar restraints. The story of a young woman with a bad temper and an egalitarian, reactionary perspective coming into her own in a conservative, sexist, hierarchical society fascinates me. Thus I finished book 1 eager to learn how Kelsea’s new magic powers and the impending invasion of her country would affect her character, particularly her impulsiveness and her reformist tendencies.
Unfortunately, book 2, The Invasion of the Tearling, disappointed me greatly. Magic and backstory subsume the carefully developed characters that readers grew to care about in book 1, and the entire edifice devolves into a poorly organized mess. I blame a lot of book 2’s failures on Johansen’s world-building decisions [or lack thereof]. The Invasion of the Tearling reveals that Kelsea’s neo-medieval, fairy-tale-throwback society is actually a colony settled by people from our near future. These Blue Horizon separatists, 300 years in Kelsea’s past, escaped a totalitarian version of the United States marked by Oil Wars, drastic disparities in wealth, constant surveillance and censorship, homophobia, and the reduction of women to breeding chattel. For some reason, Kelsea feels an emotional, magical connection to Lily, one of these activists, and she regularly enters fugues that yank her out of the building tension in the Tearling and back into the past, where Lily is developing what might be called a proto-feminist consciousness. However, their separate adventures fail to coincide in any significant way that advances the plot or any character’s understanding, so Lily merely comes across as a boring, privileged, underdeveloped distraction from the much more interesting Kelsea.
Johansen’s decision to intercut Kelsea’s story with Lily’s kills the book’s momentum, but it’s the actual content of her world-building that really sinks The Invasion of the Tearling. The regime against which the Blue Horizon members struggle is extravagantly, comically, exaggeratedly bad, and I get the sense that we’re supposed to support the Blue Horizon’s non-sexist, non-homophobic, non-censorious ways as better, even ideal. Yet Johansen seems to miss that fact that the Blue Horizon members are just as problematic as their enemies.
For just one example, the Blue Horizon explicitly rejects all technological advances past the Industrial Revolution. The leader, William Tear, says something to the effect that technology has brought more problems than it has solved, so it’s time to get rid of it. No one questions this statement, which is quickly glossed over by the action scenes, so it’s clear that Johansen hasn’t thought through the implications. A rejection of post-industrial technology excludes anyone who depends on it, including people who use supplemental oxygen, people who require advanced drug cocktails to treat HIV/AIDS, people who use assistive communication devices, and/or people who use power wheelchairs. Clearly people with disabilities and/or terminal illnesses and/or health complications have no place in the Blue Horizon’s oft-cited “better world.” I can certainly dig ableism as a founding principle if the author wants to examine and comment on the implications, but she doesn’t seem to think Blue Horizon’s discrimination against people with disabilities and/or sickness and/or health complications is a problem.
In fact, the Blue Horizon’s supposed equality and liberality collapses every time one squints at it because of the author’s inconsistent assumptions. Her treatment of people of color in particular drives me up the wall. There are only two significant people of color in The Invasion of the Tearling. One, Jonathan, is Lily’s chauffeur. Another is a Cadarese ambassador, who offers to help Kelsea against the Red Queen in exchange for a marriage alliance. Jonathan is a secret bad-ass revolutionary who exists only to facilitate Lily’s consciousness raising before he Dies For The Cause. Meanwhile, the ambassador, who promises that Kelsea would be the most valued of the Cadarese king’s harem [yes, he has a harem], seems to live in some hackneyed Orientalist Arabian Nights Land. Nope, it’s not a better world if it stinks of embedded, unexamined racism.
Furthermore, Johansen fails spectacularly with Lily’s character, especially on a conceptual level. Leaving aside the fact that she’s utterly boring, Johansen basically constructs Lily as important precisely because she’s going to screw William Tear and have a son who’s Kelsea’s ancestor. Thus Lily starts out as an electively child-free person, illegally using contraception, so that she won’t have a kid with her rich, controlling, abusive husband, and she ends up happily sailing off with William Tear because he says that he foresaw the future in which they had kids. Yes, folks, this character, who we’re supposed to support because of her curiosity, struggle to control her own body, incipient enlightenment, and freedom of choice, submits to yet another white, straight, cis dude, just because he claims that they’re destined to be together. Lily’s husband abuses her physically, emotionally, and sexually, in large part obsessed with her fertility, and William Tear, with his coercive insistence on Lily’s future breeding, isn’t much better. Johansen wants to convince readers that Misogyny Is Bad, but her own embedded sexism leads her reduce one of The Invasion of the Tearling’s co-protagonists to a predestined [and thus evacuated of agency and self-determination] baby maker. And we’re supposed to be happy about this? Sorry — I’m not happy. I’m just disappointed.