A review of an early and unfinished draft of the book:
I obtained an ARC of this at the World Fantasy Convention 2013.
The first thing I feel needs to be said is...
... THERE IS NO ROMANCE!!!
And this is a good thing. A very good thing. Romance can come in the later books, if it needs to, but for now I am just so happy not to have a book with a female lead whose relationship issues are integral to the plot.
I started reading 'The Queen of the Tearling' (can I just call it QoT?) with a mood of doubtfulness. I've been burned too many times by hyped-up books that didn't deliver. From the back cover of my ARC and what I've read on the internet so far, I think we can expect a huge marketing drive from the publishers as the July 2014 publication date draws nearer, probably in the same style as The Bone Season this year. I certainly don't agree with the comparison that's already been suggested calling QoT "Game of Thrones for women"; GRRM's books are complex in a manner that no one has managed to successfully emulate. And I don't know if QoT is going to be the fantasy of the year or anything like that. But it's a very, very good read, and with a bit more editing would be worth a full 5 stars.
I'm not going to give a plot blurb because Goodreads already has one. I'll start with Kelsea Glynn, the main character. She's one of the best female characters I've come across in fantasy in a while. Understandably given her circumstances, she's scared and uncertain, but she does the best she can. She does what she believes to be just even though she knows it may well be her undoing, and even her kingdom's. She feels lust for a man she doesn't think will ever want her, and she wishes she was beautiful, but these traits don't define her; they're not important at all. She's stubborn and apt to disagree with her protectors, but not stupidly so. I'm quite disappointed, really, that Emma Watson has been cast to play her in the already-planned film. Kelsea in the book is described as uncompromisingly plain, and knows that she won't be able to win her subjects over with beauty and grace.
There's a fairly large cast of other characters, but the significant ones stand distinctive. Mace is Kelsea's main protector, and while at the beginning he seems like nothing more than a hard, blunt warrior his layers are gradually peeled away until you realise you like him almost as much as Kelsea. It's worth noting that Kelsea is the not the only POV we follow through the book; there are three others, and all manage to get well inside the heads of the characters in question except for one. The main antagonist, the Red Queen of Mortmesne, is sadly under-developed. Until the very end her POV fails to descend deep enough, and she reads as little more than a textbook, generic villain. The first time we meet her she's annoyed by the snoring of a slave, so she presses a button to summon her guards and orders his tongue to be cut out and his vocal cords severed. That scene was the only one in the book that had a sense of gratuitous, shock-factor evil (also, the image of the Queen having two buttons, one red and one black, in her room just feels ridiculous and out of place). Ultimately I think QoT would benefit from having the Red Queen's POV cut from it entirely.
There are a few other flaws. The descriptions, particularly at the beginning when Kelsea's riding towards her new Keep, felt rather bland and the use of a number of technical-sounding words like "continuous" gave the prose a sense of sterility. I didn't notice this so much as the book went on, so either I got used to it or the prose improved. One habit of the author's which I very much disliked - and which thankfully ceased after the first third or so of the book - was the way she broke up exciting, fast-moving scenes with unnecessary chunks of exposition. Characters recalling memories and giving us back story are fine, but not at climatic moments!
I also felt a bit frustrated at the vagueness of the geography of the 'New World' that the story takes place within, though perhaps when QoT is published it'll come with a map. And there's always the next two books to develop the world further.
For most of QoT, I wasn't on the edge of my seat; but soon after the beginning I began to itch to get back to it as soon as I could. Eventually as the plot heads to its climax it IS hard to put the book down, and there were moments when I felt genuine shock or sadness.
It may be that this ARC was rushed to get it out in time for the World Fantasy Con, and that there'll be more editing before the publication date next July. I hope so, because with a little improvement QoT could easily be worth a full 5 stars. I'm sure it's going to do very well, especially if there's going to be a big marketing drive behind it. It's not THE book of the year for me, but it's one of them.