The Queen of the Tearling & Age of Iron
Summer is a good time for reading fantasy. Fantasy books, at least of the epic variety, tends to be novels of the thick and lengthy kind, which makes them perfectly suited for marathon reading sessions during hot and lazy days. The Queen of Tearling by Erika Johansen and Age of Iron are indeed both of them classic epic fantasy novels, for better or worse.
The Queen of Tearling is at first glance set in a variation of the usual secondary, quasi-medieval world, but as one reads on, it is revealed that the world is, in fact, a postapocalyptic one where something vaguely referred to as “the Crossing” has occurred and launched the entire world into an era that is best described as, well, quasi-medieval. Even so, the novel is built around one of the most well-known staples of classic fantasy: our protagonist is a young orphan, the nineteen years old Kelsea, who has to reclaim her birthright as Queen of Tearling and mend her broken country.
The most engaging part of the novel is without a doubt Kelsea's struggle to get Tearling back on its feet - due to having been ruled by a largely corrupt government for a long while and still suffering from the invasion by the neighboring empire Mortmesne some years back, Tearling is a nation down on its knees. As part of the peace treaty, Tearling has to send hundreds of slaves to Mortmesne every month and Kelsea's very first order of business as queen is to stop the shipment of slaves. Her decision is necessary to ensure the safety of her people, but it also invites war to her doorstep. Kelsea is stuck in an impossible situation - no matter what she does, Tearling will eventually suffer from it, one way or another. Every decision holds terrible weight and seeing Kelsea stepping into her role as queen knowing she has to make them and trying to figure out how makes for an interesting read.
Unfortunately, the rest of the story can best be described as bland. The plot feels like it never quite kicks off and most of the characters, apart from Kelsea, are to too a large extent completely uninteresting. Furthermore, like much fantasy, the novel suffers from an abundance of male characters: apart from Kelsea and her opponent the Red Queen, ruler of Mortmesne, the female characters are few and far between. The Queen of Tearling has been marketed as “Game of Thrones for women” and while I find that a problematic designation for many reasons, I would at least have expected the novel to actually seek to represent the group of people it is ostensibly for.
Age of Iron by Angus Watson is another classic work of fantasy, set in Britain during the titular age of iron where the threat of Roman invasion looms over the many, splintered kingdoms and throws the entire isle in a state of unrest. “Legends are not born. They are forged,” the front cover proclaims and the legends-in-making of the story are Dug, and old Warrior who has seen his fair share of battles and is considering leaving the glory and the gore behind and retire, and Lowa Flynn, a brilliant archer out seeking retribution against a king commanding an army of thousands. It's a suicide mission, really, but the two of them and a mysterious girl called Spring decide to band together and give it a try anyway.
Age of Iron is, if nothing else, a fun novel. It's fast-paced and action-packed and feels much shorter than its five hundred pages. The label grimdark would not be misplaced - the novel is brimming with mud, misery, and grim, roughened warriors, the dialogue packed with swears. Depressingly enough, it is also all but saturated with the male gaze - I don't think a single female character was introduced without an lengthy description of her physical attributes, and the purpose of half of the male characters point of view-chapters seemed to be to express how much they want to fuck the female protagonist (or, in some cases, any woman at all, really). Also, I'm not an expert on iron age clothing, but I have a hard time imaging that leather miniskirts used to be such a big hit with women as the novel makes it out be.
Sans the sexism, Age of Iron could have been an entertaining grimdark novel with an engaging, if somewhat overused, plot and lots of fun and well-written action scenes. As it is, I mostly found it trite. Not describing the ass of every female character in the novel in vivid detail is, in fact, not that difficult to do.
At the moment, the shelves are all but overflowing with novels of epic fantasy and neither The Queen of Tearling nor Age of Iron really brings anything new to the table. They are decent and entertaining, if occasionally frustrating, reads, but there are really much more accomplished works out there and I'd recommend reading them instead.