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Monday, March 16, 2015

Queen of the Tearling

The book had been left on a table in a sitting area in Sydney Airport.  And it was ten in the morning, while my flight was not scheduled until five-thirty that afternoon.

Seven hours to fill in before boarding time.

I looked at the book.  No one seemed to want it, and looking at the unimpressive cover and unimaginative title, I thought I could see why.  When I finally picked it up, it was to find that it was bookmarked at page 180 before being abandoned.

I put it down again.  No one came rushing over to claim her book, and so it lay there, looking forlorn.  Seven hours to fill.  I picked it up again, and this time I looked at the back.  Bernard Cornwell, one of my favorite authors, had blurbed it. "A gripping read with an enchanting heroine, Erika Johansen has created a wonderful world and I can't wait to read more," he had written.

So I started the book.  And was gripped.  It lasted me throughout the wait and then throughout the flight, and next morning I couldn't wait to read the rest.

And yet, it is surprisingly derivative. Let's look at the plot, for a start.  Nineteen-year-old Kelsea, plump and plain and bookish, has been raised in a remote forest by two rather elderly foster parents.  On her birthday nine horsemen come to collect her, so she can claim her throne.  The trail to the city (called New London) is fraught with danger, as there is a price on the future queen's head.  She is rescued by a bandit named The Fetch who wears a harlequin mask, and it is then that we find that she wears a sapphire with magic qualities. After arriving in New London to supplant a fat and nasty regent, Kelsea takes on board the full challenge of her job -- the place is corrupt, her people are being sold into slavery (following a lottery to fill the quota) as a "tribute" to a really repellent neighboring monarch called -- also unimaginatively -- the Red Queen.  But Kelsea tackles all this with guts and gusto, aided by her Queen's Guard.  She is a female knight in shining armor.

Sound familiar?  Well, it should.  There is a lot of Hunger Games in there, plus Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit, and Harry Potter. The author uses her sources openly and without embarrassment.  What saves this -- apart from the wonderful writing and narrative pace -- is another derivation, that of the Grimm brothers' Fairy Tales. All the elements are there -- magical artifacts, looming forests, a wicked queen, greedy nobles, downtrodden peasants -- and Johansen handles them beautifully. There is a certain amount of violence, but she certainly doesn't wallow in it.  The one or two swear words dropped into the dialogue are rather delightfully revealing of the main character's naivete.  There are also clever touches of humor. And, thank the lord, there is no bonking.

It's the first in a series, and, like Cornwell, I can't wait to read more.

Added notes.  I see that a movie has been optioned -- and the heroine is to be as beautiful as Katniss.  What a mistake!  What is particularly appealing about Kelsea is her plainness, with not a hint of a makeover in sight.

On Amazon there are some surprisingly virulent reviews.  Curious to know what the reviewers found so repellent, I had a look at the other books those readers had reviewed.  In the most vicious case the reviewer's five-star ratings were of (a) pregnancy books (b) raising toddler books (c) romances with plenty of graphic sex.

Ha! If Amazon reviewers only knew it, their lists of reviewed books are as revealing as their bookcases would be in their own homes.

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