“Simon, let me ask you: if you had the chance to go back into history and correct a great evil, would you do so?”
- The Fate of the Tearling, p 285
I finally finished the last book in the Tearling trilogy this past weekend, and wow, it was… a lot. I still can’t tell whether I’m satisfied with the ending—which I think means I am not, but I do understand why it was done the way it was. Author Erika Johansen mentions in the acknowledgments that The Fate of the Tearling was the most difficult book to write so far, and I believe it. For a trilogy that begins as a fantasy novel about a girl’s struggle to reclaim her throne, the series slowly unfolds into something much, much more.
If you haven’t read the first two books in the Tearling trilogy, I don’t recommend reading this book review. While I try to keep things as spoiler-free as possible, it’s hard to discuss some of the themes of the book without spoiling bits of The Queen of the Tearling and The Invasion of the Tearling.
If you have read the first two Tearling books, I don’t think there’s any need for a synopsis of The Fate of the Tearling because it’s simply a continuation of a story you’re familiar with.
While I’ve read many positive reviews of the Tearling trilogy online, I know some readers found the first book too slow. I never felt this way; I loved The Queen of the Tearling and all the political intrigue and magic that came with it. I enjoyed the second book as well, though I’m not a huge fan of sci fi (Queen Kelsea’s visions of the past took the story in a direction I didn’t really love).
The third and final book in the series was more sci fi than traditional fantasy, in some ways. We spend a great deal of time with Katie and the Town—the original settlement that would eventually grow to become Kelsea’s Tearling, 300 years later. Katie’s storyline is maybe the most compelling of the various pasts we visit, though to me this is because it’s not quite as dark and depressing as Lily’s or the Red Queen’s. The Town still dark and depressing, though. Don’t get me wrong.
And unfortunately, Katie’s storyline is still lacking, relative to Kelsea’s. (Kelsea is also a more compelling character that we’ve spent more with, so it’s not that strange that one would want to hurry up and get back to her POV.) Katie’s chapters are painfully slow. It’s very heavy on political philosophy, with the Town being a pseudo square one from which Johansen describes humanity’s first real attempt at socialist utopia. There’s always this constant sense of foreboding, but it’s not all that interesting. For much of the first half, it feels like Johansen is dragging things out until Kelsea’s time period can catch up for the final reveal.
“‘I hate them sometimes,’ Jonathan [Tear] remarked quietly. ‘It’s not how my father would have felt, but I do. Sometimes I think: if they want to walk around armed and build fences and let a church tell them what to do, let them wallow in it. They can build their own town of closed thinking, and live there, and find out later what a shitty place it really is. It’s not my problem.’”
- The Fate of the Tearling, p 345
After a hundred or so pages, I ended up putting the book down in favour of other books, because it just wasn’t keeping me engaged. Erika Johansen is a talented writer and she takes on some mammoth subjects with this series, the biggest being political philosophy, human nature, and sacrifice. But it was simply too drawn out in the first half of Fate, even for me.
Johansen has a lot of thoughts about the ways in which humanity can destroy itself. One of those thoughts, notably, is dogmatic religion. Johansen makes her stance against Catholicism very clear, given the Arvath’s numerous parallels to the history of the Catholic church, one among many being the coverup of child abuse. Some might think Johansen anti-religion as well, but I would disagree; she seems mostly pro separation of church and state, and against greed, cruelty, dogmatism, and superiority complexes.
“Tyler did not believe in hell. He had decided, long ago, that if God wanted to punish them, there was infinite opportunity right here; hell would be superfluous.”
- The Fate of the Tearling, p 145
I appreciate what Johansen has done with her debut series. We go from a dark fantasy world with political intrigue and compelling characters to this blow-open universe that forces us to reflect on our own reality, our own time, and our own responsibilities as social creatures. Plus, Kelsea is just a fantastic protagonist. She’s flawed as anyone, but empathetic, thoughtful, and headstrong. And shes’ grown so much since The Queen of the Tearling. I rooted for her the whole way through., but this book in particular is full of YAS QUEEN! moments.
But the heavy emphasis on political philosophy came at the expense of other plot-related elements. Magic, for example, was largely glossed over. Does this mean there will be another story set in the Tearling universe that explores magic a bit more? I wouldn’t say I need to know everything there is to know about the world’s magic system, but a little more detail would have been nice.
That being said, I was so happy with the series’ continuity. It’s not often we see a character’s behaviour change back and forth and truly understand that the author has written them that way for specific plot reasons that are only revealed later on. Too often have I read books with character personality changes that felt weak, hallow, and unjustified.
Each revelation that brought us closer to the epic finale was gripping and definitely drove me to finish the second half of the book in one sitting. While the first half was slow, the second half was so exciting. Johansen did an excellent job bringing the series to a close, tying up all loose ends and giving us an epic, dramatic conclusion to the series.
Like I said before, I’m not sure how I feel about the ending—and by that I mean the last two chapters. I feel like it was the right ending, but it was still a shock. It had the same effect of reopening a wound. All of the love I had for the characters—for Kelsea, Elston, Hall, Father Tyler, Aisa, the Mace (THE MACE!!)—came back unexpectedly raw; I had a hard time processing that the trilogy was simply over.
But the ending also makes you reflect on how well-done some of the characters are. Fate reinforces the presence of so many complex, strong female characters. (I might still be a bit bitter after The Name of the Wind.) And it makes you think about everything Johansen has shown you over the course of three sizeable novels: that a better world is worth fighting for.
“‘I defend this land, Rowland Finn. No one wants to know how I do it, but I do.’”
- The Fate of the Tearling
Despite the problems I had with Fate, it was a strong finish to a complex, highly philosophical story. Kelsea is one of my favourite fictional monarchs and the conclusion only grew my respect for her—she’s just so compelling. Strong, clever, real, and badass. Of all the reasons to read this series, Kelsea is definitely a big one. But, as I’ve said, this series is full of things to think about. Despite any frustrations, the Tearling Trilogy was worth the read.
Have you finished the Tearling trilogy? What are your thoughts?