Review of Beneath the Keep by Erika Johansen
The kingdom's evils are intensely detailed and extensively explored; this motivates characters to seek change, but also made the book difficult to read.
Beneath the Keep, to be published 2/2/21, is a prequel to Erika Johansen's Queen of the Tearling series (three other books are in the series, The Queen of the Tearling, The Invasion of the Tearling, and The Fate of the Tearling).
This book traces the history of the Tearling as a kingdom crushed by famine, feudalism, corruption, greed, and unrest--which spurs on some citizens to attempt to shift the kingdom toward becoming a land with strong new hope and opportunity. Meanwhile the fabled True Queen is said to be poised to save them all. Is Princess Elyssa the one they've all been waiting for? Elyssa recalls that the history shared by her tutor Lady Glynn was made up of:
"...tales of good, but much more of evil, of humanity‘s vast suffering, of suffering that could have been averted at so many turns if only there had been someone of true heart, of good intent…. If only that person had stepped forward at the right moment…"
The Tearling kingdom is (literally) built upon an actual underground warren (the Creche) of tunnels housing a commercial system based on degenerate activity, the opportunity to act upon cruel whims, and insufferably atrocious exchanges of money, drugs, and paid-for rape in various forms.
"...Crèche babies, likely sold in their first weeks of life...had each learned the great lesson of the tunnels: in a world where brutality was a constant, it was infinitely better to be the one holding the whip.”
Beneath the Keep is absolutely steeped in the darkest imaginable and shockingly widespread depravity: trafficking in children and adults; vulnerable people used as slaves for sex; brutal fighting to the death; and various other horrors. There's extensive page time spent on ghastly monstrousness.
Some of the characters I loved from the rest of the series (I'm looking at you, Mace, and also the Fetch--side note, that nickname always reminds me of the very off-topic movie Mean Girls) are star players within this dystopian period of Johansen's Tearling world.
Childhood bonds and shared difficulties are heavily featured and are shown to be enormously important to shaping the book's characters and their life paths (for example, Christian and Maura; Brenna and Arlen; Aislynn and Liam); these bonds are similarly key in the final book of the series, The Fate of the Tearling (in that case, with Katie and Row and Katie and Jonathan). Another common theme between this prequel and the final book in the trilogy is the widespread suffering (and significant effect on the plot) caused by the actions of bitter, unacknowledged heirs (Row; Arlen).
I loved Aislynn's attempts to achieve upheaval in the wake of her life horrors, and her renewed, fierce desire to seek justice. Yet as in The Fate of the Tearling, populist movements are cruelly crushed, along with hope for a better world for all. Beneath the Keep sets up a scene of sweeping societal despair and its flip side: an opportunity for new beginnings to take place in The Queen of the Tearling. But Beneath the Keep's events are almost universally bleak, with so much lost, so many horrors, so many instances of depravity and pure evil, good generally losing out to bad, and endless terrible impulses wreaking havoc on individuals and on society as a whole. A corrupt church and faulted religion are presented as contributing to broad destruction and greed.
Throughout the series there is a dark undercurrent that serves as either a motivator for warped debauchery or as inspiration for change. But in Beneath the Keep the evils are intensely detailed and constantly explored. It was really difficult to read a book with so much page time spent on abuse and violence.
Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?
I first mentioned Beneath the Keep (along with The Loneliest Girl in the Universe and The Unwilling) in the Greedy Reading List Three Books I'm Reading Now, 1/28/21 Edition.
I received a prepublication copy of this book courtesy of Dutton Books and NetGalley.