Not very far into The Invasion of the Tearling, the second installment of Erika Johansen's fantasy trilogy, a very odd thing happens. The story, which to that point had taken place in a distant future that resembles medieval Europe suddenly pitches back in time to a near future that looks a lot like what I imagine the US will become if Donald Trump is elected President in November.
Johansen, who does a fair job of creating an 'o ld' new world - the Tearling, where a young queen tries to lead her people out of enforced servitude to its eastern neighbour - proves somewhat brilliant at creating a nightmarish vision of a mid-to-late 21st Century United States. Here a young woman lives in servitude to her violent, loathsome arms dealer husband in a walled New England community where the rich drive Mercedes, play golf and drink champagne while outside the walls the poor starve or freeze or die because of lack of basic medication. This near-dystopian world is governed by 'Security' an all-seeing, all-powerful arm of the state which has responsibility for maintaining the iniquitous status quo.
The Invasion Of the Tearling then settles into a future-past rhythm in which the story flashes back and forth between the tales of 21st Century Lily Mayhew and Kelsea, 24th Century monarch. Kelsea, a newcomer to royalty (see: The Queen of the Tearling) in her New London keep pursues strategies to postpone what seems inevitable defeat at the hands of the evil Mort people and their Red Queen. They are invading the Tearling after Kelsea cut off the constant flow of slaves sent westwards to Mort as part of an earlier military settlement. Lily Mayhew, in the meantime, is doing little more than trying to avoid impregnation by the odious, wife-beating Greg. Until a 'terrorist' with a gun shot wound falls over her back wall and begins to introduce Lily to the idea that there could be 'a better world'.
This creates a very strange division in the narrative. Queen Kelsea's story takes place in Young Adult territory, as was the first novel. Hers is in part a coming of age tale - discovering herself as she seeks to save her land and its people. It's a story that has some charm - enough to make me come back for a second helping anyway - and one that tackles some interesting issues including feminism and fascism, albeit in a manner that my 13 year old son could comfortably ignore if he so chose. Kelsea is a strong and attractive female character, if occasionally somewhat clumsily drawn. Publicly she is tough and uncompromising, but privately riddled with doubts.
Johansen's near future post-Trumpian vision is not YA in the slightest. Her portait of an entirely divided, morally bankrupt, misogynistic US society owned and managed to maintain the status of a tiny rich and powerful elite is dark and disturbing. Even the language is different - harsher and more profane - than that of the Tearling story. And Johansen has a message for her readers that nobody could ignore: beware the increasingly alarming inequality of wealth; beware the erosion of your civil liberties, particularly when they are taken in the name of security and liberty; beware demagogues with a narrative based on fear, and a strategy based on alienation. Does that sound familiar to anyone?
While Kelsea's somewhat meandering story remained the focus of the novel, the narrative was lit up by the Lily Mayhew story, particularly as she finds hidden depths of courage and resolve in herself. This narrative also begins to fill in the historical gaps about the development of the Tearling, hinted at throughout the first novel, which makes it clear that the land was populated following a 'Crossing' from the United States in the distant past. Without this element, I might not have been prepared to return for a third installment, but now I look forward to the final book in the trilogy later this year.