Thursday, 9 July 2015

Review: The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Publication Date: July 16th 2015 (UK)
Publisher: Bantam Press
Length: 528 pages

Huge thanks to Netgalley and Bantam Press for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review

With each passing day, Kelsea Glynn is growing into her new responsibilities as Queen of the Tearling. By stopping the shipments of slaves to the neighboring kingdom of Mortmesne, she crossed the Red Queen, a brutal ruler whose power derives from dark magic, who is sending her fearsome army into the Tearling to take what is hers. And nothing can stop the invasion.
But as the Mort army draws ever closer, Kelsea develops a mysterious connection to a time before the Crossing, and she finds herself relying on a strange and possibly dangerous ally: a woman named Lily, fighting for her life in a world where being female can feel like a crime. The fate of the Tearling —and that of Kelsea’s own soul—may rest with Lily and her story, but Kelsea may not have enough time to find out.

I’m still feeling really conflicted about this book, even several days after finishing it. I adored the first book in the series ‘Queen of the Tearling’. It had a determined, likeable and relatable heroine at its heart. A fascinating world (although it did leave you with a lot of questions about how the world came to be) and an engaging and interesting plot. All in all, ‘Queen’ was one of the best books of 2014 for me.

So I was really excited to get stuck into ‘Invasion’ but instead of the all-consuming brilliance and love I felt for the first one, I was left feeling mixed and at odds with the story. Some people will prefer this story to the first as it offers far more insight into how the Tearling came to be, but be warned that it is a very different beast.

Whilst the first book in the series had vague dystopian undertones, it felt like it fell very firmly into the fantasy category on reading. However the dystopian undertones are back, this time front and centre and we end up with two stories rather than one. We still have Kelsea, but she’s having visions from a pre-crossing American woman, Lily Mayhew, who gives us an insight into the world that prompted Tear to break off and form this ‘better world’. It’s jarring having these two stories because whilst they will eventually intersect, for the majority of the book it is like reading two books. Imagine reading a book that is alternate chapters of ‘Divergent’ by Veronica Roth ‘Game of Thrones’ by George R R Martin and you’ll have a fairly good idea of what to expect from this one. It’s strange and doesn’t particularly work. Yes both stories are engaging, but we slip from one to the next at the most inopportune moments and end up not connecting with the characters in the same way, and having very halting and slowed pacing on both stories. It takes a while for either of them to gain any momentum, and by the time I found myself fully invested in both I was around three quarters of the way through the book.

Lily’s storyline, whilst interesting, wasn’t the sort of story I had expected to find. It was much harsher, filled with rape, abuse and violence – not things I had been expecting when starting the book, and I found myself having to put the book down and take a step back on a fairly frequent basis. These story elements felt a little gratuitous, as though they were there to hammer a point home and really make it clear that Greg was a Bad Man and that women were effectively breeding machines and property. I think highlighting issues that are often swept under the rug or glamourised is important, but a lot of it didn’t feel like it fell on the right side of that line, as though the same effect could have been achieved with less triggering scenes.

We pinballed between Lily and Kelsea not really having a chance to connect fully with either of them. Kelsea has changed hugely between the first book and this one. She’s matured, she’s become crueller, and I didn’t recognise her throughout a lot of the book. She’s become shallow and vain, as though her integrity has been compromised. I’m trying to reserve judgement until I can read the final book and see the story in its complete form, but I found it much harder to relate to and understand Kelsea in this story, and that meant that the story lost a lot of its appeal.

Despite these problems there was still a huge amount that did work for me. A whole host of characters that I loved getting back to and fleshing out further. I love the world and the relationships, and Johansen’s writing style is still as addictive and engrossing as ever. I made quick work of the book, but really stormed through the final quarter when the stakes get higher and everything starts to rush towards the final crescendo.

I think it will take time for me to truly formulate my thoughts on this book, and probably not until the final book is in my hands and I can see how the story works as a complete piece. It’s full of surprises and twists, jigsaw pieces slotting together to create a compelling tale, but definitely one that was a world away from my expectations from the first book. That could be either a good thing or a bad thing, only time will tell.

EDIT: I wrote this review immediately after reading the book, when I was still incredibly caught up in all of my frustrations and feelings on finishing. In the days since I haven't been able to stop thinking about the book. I loved seeing Kelsea and the Mace and Pen and all the other guards, seeing how their relationships have changed over time and how they respect and trust Kelsea so much more than in the first book. I adored the scenes set in Tear, despite my issues with Kelsea's characterization in this book, and I think that the fact that I keep thinking about them and coming back to them is a good sign and says a lot about the book. I still have issues with a lot of elements, and I still feel conflicted about a lot of things, but the lasting power of the book and my continuing thoughts on the story mean that this is near to a four star read, rather than a straight three star. One of the few times I wish I gave half star ratings!

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