The Fate of the Tearling, Erika Johansen (Harper 978-0-06-229042-7, $25.99, 480pp, hc) November 2016.
When Erika Johansen began a trilogy with debut novel The Queen of the Tearling, I saw elements of science fiction in a work that more strongly invokes epic fantasy (and is touted as such in the blurbs). Set in a world linked somehow to Earth’s dystopian future, all three books interweave plots and genres along two timelines with several centuries between them – eras and situations that invoke SF for the past, dark fantasy for the present. Main characters in that later time (where most of the action takes place) include Kelsea, the teenager raised to unexpected heights in Queen; the Crimson Queen of Mort, head of the sinister autocracy that attacks in middle book The Invasion of the Tearling; and the Orphan, a sorcerer whose human origin is never hidden but which becomes crucial to finale The Fate of the Tearling. Important as they are, Johansen drops them into a montage of viewpoints – some for people who’d be ‘‘groundlings’’ in standard epic fantasy.
Throughout the trilogy, its timelines, characters and themes can create a shifting, turbulent mix in the space of a single chapter, but this last volume defies genre convention most openly of all. Some of this is structural. In its three sections, the expected rescue mission for an imprisoned Queen Kelsea doesn’t set out until book two, and the scenarios that will finally trigger a startling climax proceed by labyrinthine paths before coming together near the end of book three.
When early chapters set the stage with post-war briefing sessions for the current regent of Tearland and the Crimson Queen, a sense of strangeness prevails. Tear generals report that the Mort army’s heading home: ‘‘But why? No one knew… [Soldiers] weren’t even looting on their way ….’’ And though Kelsea’s now a prisoner of the Mort, her magical sapphires turned over to their Queen, it seems nothing like victory when that monarch hears of angry mobs, deserting militias, plans for more widespread political rebellion, and the Orphan’s monstrous army – something like a zombie horde – ravaging distant villages, with her capital Mortmesne as the next stop on their quest for world domination.
While many of the threats seem fantastical, in clashing realms with dark forces on the move, this final volume treats much of its present more like the Nightly News, ranging from bleak war scenes to more intimate chronicles of crime and human folly – prevalent in a world whose monsters once were human. In one of those latter plotlines, former victims of a child-molesting husband and father take refuge in the regent’s court (where their toddler proves to be to be surprisingly useful); another follows a Tearling man whose wife was sent to slavery in Mortmesne as he finally tracks her to a Mort whorehouse (and doesn’t get the response that he expected).
For the past, the focus narrows to one person’s experience in the small town founded by William Tear, inhabited by settlers with a pre-industrial lifestyle and grand ambitions for human social improvement. Here the new book introduces Katie: a teenager as spirited and questioning as Kelsea, yet also a close friend to the boy who becomes the ageless Orphan. Scenes from that friendship – and its later rift – explore opposing ideals and emotions, some that drive Tearling idealism, others that start undermining it while hopes are still high.
The Fate of the Tearling takes ‘‘Failed Utopia’’ as its overriding theme, in chapter-heading quotes and (more subtly) the name of Tear’s outpost: New London, which plays on the setting of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a futuristic London. Tackling both utopia and epic fantasy in a trilogy with divided timelines, multiple perspectives, and a wild genre mix, Johansen may not reach Huxley’s satiric heights. Nonetheless, the work is genuinely subversive: social commentary in the guise of supernatural adventure.