Kelsea knows that when she turns nineteen, it is time for her to take her rightful place as Queen, like her mother (who died when she was a baby) and grandmother before her. She has been raised far from civilisation, by two loyal servants, who did their best to prepare her in every way they could for the duty she would be facing. What they have not done is socialise her in any way, she's barely seen another living soul since she was little, and they've refused to tell her anything about her mother or her mother's reign. So while she has a lot of theoretical knowledge about her realm, the Tearling, and its surrounding neighbours, she has little to no practical experience and is in for a sharp learning curve once some of the remaining members of the queen's guard come to pick her up to take her back to the capital.
The road back to her palace is fraught with danger, as her uncle, the regent, has sent assassins to dispatch Kelsea. He doesn't want to surrender his power, and there is more than one attack on the princess and her guards on their way to the capital. Along the way, Kelsea is rescued from an attack by hired killers by the Tearling's most wanted, a legendary outlaw calling himself the Fetch. This man and all his compatriots wear masks while they dispatch Kelsea's attackers, but later, when she spends some time in their camp, she gets to see him unmasked. He clearly has sinister plans for her uncle and is very curious about what sort of ruler Kelsea is going to be. She refuses to show fear and promises to rule the country to the best of her abilities. This seems to satisfy the bandit leader.
Once she returns to her palace, Kelsea discovers how her mother made peace with the neighbouring country, ruled by a powerful and seemingly ageless sorceress after an invasion several decades ago. Suffice to say, Kelsea is appalled and by her first actions, she sets in motion events that may very well trigger a new invasion. Shortly after, there is another assassination attempt on her while they are trying to get her crowned. It becomes obvious to Kelsea that her long-dead mother was a vain, weak and fairly useless queen who quite happily sold out the freedoms and rights of her people to keep herself safe. Her brother, Kelsea's uncle, has continued the mismanagement of the realm and most of the people are suffering badly. If she can survive, she has a hell of a job ahead of her, righting the wrongs of her predecessors. Luckily, she appears to have some sort of magical abilities too, bestowed on her by the royal sapphires that all heirs to the Tearling wear.
I've seen a lot of people give this book incredibly low ratings, probably because it seems that when the book was first released it was marketed as "Game of Thrones meets the Hunger Games". Clearly this was invented by someone who threw darts on a large board full of things that sold well in the publishing industry. "What if Hermione Granger was the heir to a really down-trodden, pseudo-medieval but somehow also set in our future kingdom, where the biggest danger was the evil sorceress in the next country over" would be a better description. Note that I didn't pick Hermione completely out of the blue. Emma Watson has apparently bought the adaptation rights and wants to star as Kelsea. I'm assuming that if that is the case, they're going to have to uglify her but good, as just in case you forget it, every third chapter or so, the author reminds you how plain, unassuming and dumpy Kelsea is. You are never really allowed to go long without being told how the new queen is rather ugly. So I can't really say that my mental image of her was Emma Watson, and also, I really felt that the girl had more important things to worry about than her appearance, but what do I know? I've never had to rule a fantasy kingdom that's pretty much been colonised and run into the ground by another.
The world-building is strange. There are references to America and England, and some generations ago, a man called William Tear apparently gathered all the scientists, doctors and learned people on ships to sail away to a new continent (no hints as to where this is), but a lot of their technology and medical expertise was shipwrecked on the way. So while there are knights and sorcery and people riding horses or using carts, and mostly very downtrodden serfs rooting around in the mud (it all got a bit Monty Python and the Holy Grail in the descriptions of the countryside and the populace, as far as I could tell), this is somehow set in the future. Also, the Red Queen who rules the neighbouring kingdom (I could look it up, but I can't be bothered to dig out my e-reader) seems to have lived for at least a century, clearly through nefarious magical means.
Kelsea has a sapphire around her neck that apparently cannot be removed until she is dead, as well as a second one that will belong to her heir. This one the Fetch could take from her though, and he gives it back to her later in the book when he feels that she has proven herself worthy to rule. Said necklace seems to be trying to communicate with Kelsea and can bestow her with magical powers. She also has a servant who appears to be a psychic of some sort, but only in the sense that she gets premonitions about bad things about to happen, she can't give specifics (that would be far too useful). Oh, and Kelsea has grown up reading and loving books because her guardian had lots of shelves worth, but in the rest of the kingdom, books are super rare and no one knows how to print them anymore or seems to care about relearning this skill (this is my nightmare).
For the first third or so, the book didn't interest me much and I actually put it down and read a bunch of other books in between. Then she finally arrived at her palace and discovered just how messed up a situation she was faced with as queen (I don't want to go into specifics, but trust me, it's pretty bad) and I started getting interested. This book is clearly just establishing the beginning of Kelsea's reign. Since each new chapter seems to contain excerpts from books written much later in Queen Kelsea's lifetime, possibly even after her death, I was never overly worried that she wasn't going to make it though to the end of the book (also, this is book one - I suspect she may survive until book three).
The tone of the book is also a bit strange. This is totally YA, and nowhere near George R.R. Martin territory (nor are there anything vaguely resembling Hunger Games - seriously publishers, did you read the wrong book before you sent out the press release?), but there are some scenes of pretty graphic violence and while there isn't a lot of sexual content, the Red Queen clearly isn't big on consent and doesn't care who she takes her pleasure with, and neither does Kelsea's weaselly uncle.
I've seen complaints that Kelsea is a special snowflake of a character, I didn't really think so. She is young, and has a lot of book smarts, but clearly needs to learn to rule properly, and has impulsively made decisions that are going to come back and bite her in her royal behind later. She seems to nurse an ill-advised crush on the Fetch, but there isn't really anything romantic hinted at with anyone. There are a lot of factions who want to oppose her, and she will clearly face a lot of challenges in the next two books before I'm sure she becomes triumphant and takes her people into a new golden age or something. As long as she makes sure there are books, I'll be happy.
It's a decent enough beginning to a fantasy trilogy. I'm really curious as to where exactly these books are set, as unless the ships mentioned were actually spaceships, I'm unsure where the Americans and English of old actually sailed to. As long as I'm entertained, and it doesn't play too important a part, I'm willing to turn my brain off in that particular respect. Since the trilogy is now completed, it seems likely I'll be reading the rest of it in the next year or so, but it's not like I'm impatient to pick up the next book either. I hope Kelsea stops moaning about how ugly she is in book two, though. Looks aren't everything, girl.
Judging a book by its cover: I've seen several covers for this book, the one that comes with my edition evokes a volume of fairy stories to me, with the red background and the black, swirly embellishments. In the centre "cutout", there is a palace on a hill, so you can probably guess from both the title and the image that this is a fantasy story. It's not the most exciting of images, but it's not bad either.