Shortly after her nineteenth birthday Kelsea Raleigh Glynn waits on her doorstep for a troop of Queen's Guard from the Royal Keep. They have come to bring her back to the city and claim the throne. The journey, however, is fraught with danger. Her uncle, the Regent, has placed a bounty on her head and sent the Caden, infamous and skilled assassins, to kill her before she has chance to claim her birthright.
The Tearling was founded as a socialist Utopia but quickly fell into a feudal-style class system, complete with a thriving Black Market and a slave trade - a shipment of slaves is sent every month to the neighbouring Mortmesne, presided over by the Red Queen. Kelsea decides to put an end to this as soon as she arrives at the Keep, pleasing the masses but angering the few yet decidedly powerful, particularly Arlen Thorne, the head of the Census. Meanwhile, the Red Queen tries to keep a watchful eye over the goings on in the Tearling but is unable to see Kelsea herself, much to her chagrin and (though she wouldn't admit it) growing fear.
This is a brilliant fantasy read with a Dystopian undercurrent, with a host of interesting and absorbing characters. Kelsea is a fantastic heroine. She does not shy away from danger, meets the threats to her life head on, and has an acute sense of social justice. Her nemesis, the Red Queen, is alluring but dark and ruthless, her mystery enhanced by the fact that we do not know her name or much of her background apart from that she carried out a coup to become Queen of Mortmesne and quickly conquered the neighbouring lands. The Captain of Kelsea's guard, Lazarus, is fierce, perceptive, smart and unflinchingly loyal. And Carlin and Barty, Kelsea's foster parents, though not seen much on the page are shown to be extremely brave, clever, wise and insightful.
The main moral dilemmas in the story manifest in a man called Javel, a gate guard, whose wife was taken in the shipment some years previously, and who has to decide whether he will do business with Thorne to get his wife back despite knowing that there will be a heavy price to pay in terms of humanity.
All at once this novel is an adventurous fantasy, social commentary, a challenge to belief systems, examinations of different forms of evil, and uncomfortable moral questioning. It's a story that absorbs you and forces you to think deeply about the questions it poses. It is well-paced and structured, with viewpoints of different characters showing the reader the different parts of the Tearling and Mortmesne. Through the different character perspectives we see a range of motivations, fears and hopes of those who live in the Tearling. It's a highly accomplished debut that promises future literary gold from Johansen. The Queen of the Tearling and its sequels certainly promise to be an obsession, and probably one of the best trilogies of recent times.