Wednesday, April 7, 2021

#Review/Excerpt - Beneath the Keep by Erika Johansen #Fantasy

Series: The Queen of the Tearling # 0
Format: Hardcover, 448 pages
Release Date: February 2, 2021
Publisher: Dutton
Source: Publisher
Genre: Fantasy / Epic

As a kingdom descends into darkness and new alliances are forged under fire, a battle begins over a prophecy that will change the course of history in this much-anticipated stand-alone prequel to the bestselling Queen of the Tearling trilogy.

The Tearling, founded as a utopia, has collapsed and reverted to feudalism. As the gap between rich and poor widens and famine threatens the land, rumors of a prophecy begin to spread: a great hope, a True Queen who will ascend and save the kingdom.

But rumors will not help Lazarus, a boy on the verge of manhood, trapped in the clandestine underworld known as the Creche. Enlisted from his earliest days to kill without mercy, he has never seen sun or sky, not until a quest for vengeance propels him above ground. There he finds a calling amid a royal court rife with intrigue and danger, where he meets Niya, Princess Elyssa’s handmaid, who is not what she appears to be and whose true identity will spell death if revealed.

With a righteous rebellion gathering inside her kingdom, Princess Elyssa finds herself torn between duty to the throne and her growing loyalty to the Blue Horizon, a group of fierce idealists who promise radical change. Elyssa must choose quickly, for threats beset her on all sides, and the powers wielded by an uncanny seer and her shadowy master are preparing to decide the Princess’s fate for her. It is only a matter of time before Lazarus, Niya, and Elyssa will be called into the service of something greater than they have ever imagined: the fight for a better world.

Beneath the Keep, by author Erika Johansen, is a prequel to the Queen of the Tearling series. In the beginning, 17 ships left the old world for a new destination. 16 made it to their destination and thus, Tearling was born. That journey was called the Crossing. Nobody has come close to what William Tear and his people accomplished long ago. Many have tried to ear down his ideology which is how we got to this point. Did they travel to an alternative reality, or a new planet? Today, in a futuristic world called The Tearling, humanity has reverted to the dark ages. 
The capital city, New London, is home to a palace and ruling monarchy, as well as a dark underworld which exists below the city. Tear's idea of a perfect utopian has been lost to everyone except one particular group called Blue Horizon and perhaps 21-year-old Crown Princess Elyssa Anne Raleigh who is heir to the Kingdom. With help from Lady Glynn who went missing, Elyssa pictures a world where there are no rich or poor. A world where everyone is equally valuable. Tear once wanted to eradicate narcotics, human trafficking, bigotry, illiteracy, ignorance and organized religion.  
Queen Arla the Just is ruthless and rules with an iron fist. Change won't come as long as she is in charge or with a powerful witch and her master whispering in her ear. Elyssa actually had a heart and soul of her own, a goodness the world was not ready for. Elyssa had to decide if she'll continue the ruthless rule of her mother, or have the audacity to become the prophesied True Queen destined to bring about a more just world for all. Through manipulation and witchcraft, the good Elyssa is essentially killed off leaving her a shell and pawn of those wanting power and the throne. 
Those who have read the Queen of the Tearling series are aware of who Elyssa is but now you get to finally understand how Kelsea came into the world, and the extraordinarily means by which people stood up and protected her from her birth until she reached the age of Nineteen and come become Queen. In an underground ghetto called the Creche, a boy named Christian becomes a fighter named Lazarus who becomes a palace guard named Mace who we all know and love from the Queen of the Tearling series. Leading the Blue Horizon is the mysterious masked figure called The Fetch.  
With Queen Arla treating people like animals, even animals find a way to strike back. Those like Aislinn, a local farmer’s daughter, who starts a revolution after her entire family is slaughter for her disobedience by the owner of the land they are assigned to work. Then there is Niya who is Elyssa dame of chamber as well as a member of the Blue Horizon rebellion. Niya plays a huge role in getting Kelsea to safety. One of the more interesting questions of the Queen of the Tearling series was the identity of Kelsea's real father. Read the book or the spoilers if you must know.

As the ending comes to a close, Mace understands that a darkness is coming and Arlen Thorne controls the strings. A shadow of indifference has spread over the country and many many people have died as a result of the machinations of a few. 19 years from this ending, a new Queen will rise to fight the darkness. Apparently, for some reason the author closes the book by saying, "when we finally get back to Kelsea (not too long now)." Not sure what the point of writing another story is especially how the Fate of the Tearling ended.


The Woman in the Cloak

Elyssa Anne Raleigh—Sixth Queen of the Tearling. Also known as the Shipper Queen. Mother: Queen Arla Raleigh (Arla the Just). Father: Lord Devin Burrell, fourth lord of the Burrell seat (predeceased).
The Early History of the Tearling (Index), as told by Merwinian

Elyssa hated her mother’s court.
She supposed she should be thankful that this wasn’t a full audience. More than six hundred people crowded the Queen’s throne room, but that was only a fraction of the number the room could hold. It was late May, but the hot weather had already come on, and many of the Tear nobles had retreated from their New London manses to the country. Elyssa supposed she didn’t blame them—well, no, she did blame them, for a whole host of other things, but not for decamping. New London stank in summer. Sewage, piss, rotten animal flesh…the city never smelled of roses, but in hot weather the stench could not be escaped. Even here, on the fourth floor of the Keep, some hundred and fifty feet above the rest of the city, Elyssa could smell it.

Or maybe what she smelled was right here in this room.

The man from the Blue Horizon had been beaten within an inch of his life. His visible flesh was mottled with bruising: face and arms and even bare feet. His arm appeared to be broken; it hung limply at his side. When the two jailers released his arms, Elyssa saw that at least three of his fingernails had been ripped out. It wasn’t her first look at Welwyn Culp’s work, but she had never seen it so vicious before. Several ladies of the court had screamed at the man’s appearance. Even Niya, Elyssa’s own head maid, who reacted to all upset with a face of stone, had not been unmoved, hissing under her breath as Culp pulled the man’s hood off.

But Elyssa’s mother was not one to be moved by pity. A long time before, when Elyssa was only a child, a singer had composed an ironic song about the Queen, a ballad called “Arla the Just.” The singer had died in the Queen’s dungeons, but the nickname had stuck, and Elyssa’s mother was no more merciful now than she had been then. Queen Arla the Just sat easily on the throne, drinking her tea, apparently unperturbed by the bruised and bleeding man before her. The entire court stood waiting, silent, while the Queen took small sip after small sip, the sapphire crown twinkling on her head. After several minutes she placed the mug back in its saucer, and then set both carefully on the table beside her.

“Who is he?”

“His contact gave us the name Gareth, Majesty. But that may be an alias.”

“And where was he found?”

“Off the Cord Launch, Majesty,” one of the soldiers below the dais replied. “Trying to escape in a skiff. We found more than a thousand pounds in the bottom of the boat.”

“Indeed? And where did this thousand come from?”

“Bishop Laurence’s manse. The bishop has confirmed that this is the fortune that was stolen from him several nights ago.”

Low murmuring passed through the court. News of the robbery of Bishop Laurence had traveled the city like wildfire, despite the Church’s attempts to keep it quiet; the bishop’s servants were not discreet, and it was too good a tale. The bishop had invited a pro into his chambers, a woman dressed as a priest. The costume was clearly the most scandalous part of the tale, though Elyssa had hardly been surprised to hear it; God’s Church was a collection of fetishists if she had ever seen one. When the servants came the next morning, they found Bishop Laurence unconscious, badly beaten, and his private store of gold cleaned out.

“Well, we all know that tale,” Queen Arla remarked. Elyssa sensed private glee beneath her mother’s words; the Queen loathed the Church. She might claim that her objections were philosophical, but Elyssa knew that the matter was jealousy. Her mother hated the priests’ hold over the kingdom, hated the fact that there was widespread fear not inspired by herself. The Queen had to play sweet with the Arvath in public, to keep the Holy Father happy, but she loved to see the Church humiliated as much as anyone else.

“But this is no woman,” the Queen said after a moment. “Where is his accomplice, the prostitute who dressed up as a frock?”

There was a long silence, and then Welwyn Culp replied stiffly. “I have been unable to compel that information, Majesty.”

This time, the murmuring was louder. Culp was a virtuoso among interrogators; he never failed to produce answers. The Queen often declared Culp one of her most valued assets, but Lady Glynn, Elyssa’s old tutor, had been a staunch opponent of torture, and Elyssa had taken her beliefs to heart. She hated Welwyn Culp, hated everything his lower dungeons represented, so much so that she had once presented her mother with a passage, carefully copied in her own hand from one of Lady Glynn’s books, a historical analysis on the inefficacy of torture in interrogation. Elyssa had been only eleven or twelve then, still young enough to believe that her mother would be swayed by the passage’s logic, its faultless combination of numbers and reason. Instead, the Queen had ordered her locked in Culp’s dungeons for the night. It was Culp himself who had dragged Elyssa downstairs, past the regular dungeons and into the sunken chambers beneath: mold‑encrusted rooms where the smell of blood hung in the air like rotten incense and the paving stones still bore traces of decades‑old gore. Culp had locked Elyssa into an empty cell…empty save for a long, raised wooden board, set with manacles at hand and foot, which stood in the center of the room.

Elyssa had stared at that board all night, her eyes wide, unsleeping. She sensed ghosts in the room, not spectral beings but something much worse: an echo of endless suffering, as much a part of the place as the foundation stones beneath her feet. In the morning, when Culp had come to let her out, Elyssa had gone as docilely as a lamb, and she had taken the lesson to heart. She never raised the issue of Welwyn Culp with her mother again…but she should have, she realized now, staring at the bruised panoply of colors on the prisoner’s skin.

“Well, Gareth, or whatever your name is,” Queen Arla remarked, “you have a choice before you. You can either give me the name of your accomplice, or I can hand you back to Culp for another go. Depend upon it, he will make you talk in the end.”

Elyssa shook her head in silent disagreement. This was not the first member of the Blue Horizon the army had captured, and others had talked…but they had merely been middlemen: fencers of stolen goods or dealers who had provided the Blue Horizon with weapons. Gareth seemed different. Despite his injuries, he stood straight, with no hint of begging or obeisance, and his light eyes did not flinch from the anger in her mother’s face. The Blue Horizon had incurred Queen Arla’s wrath in a variety of ways, but Elyssa often thought that their real crime was this: they would not kneel. Her mother could threaten all she wanted; this man would never talk.

“Well?” her mother demanded. “Where is the woman? Your accomplice?”

“Picture a world where there are no rich and poor,” Gareth said flatly. “A world where all are equally valuable. This is the better world. I see it all the time.”

Elyssa could almost see her mother’s ears begin smoking. The Queen probably didn’t know the origin of the words, but Elyssa did; they were the litany of William Tear, who had founded the Tearling nearly three hundred years before. Lady Glynn had also been a great admirer of William Tear, though that was nothing that Elyssa’s mother needed to know about. The Queen had brought Lady Glynn to the Keep to teach Elyssa about power politics, and while Lady Glynn certainly knew about such things, she was also a devout believer in William Tear’s better world. When Elyssa was sixteen, Lady Glynn had taken an unthinkable step for a noble, dissolving her family seat and redistributing her acres to the nearly three hundred tenants who worked on her land. The Queen had been furious, the kingdom in uproar, when Lady Glynn disappeared.

Did you kill her? Elyssa wondered, staring at her mother. She asked this question often in her head, though she had never been able to bring herself to ask it aloud. But the entire Queen’s Guard stood ready to kill at the Queen’s command, and no one had seen or heard from Lady Glynn in nearly five years. She was dead, all right. The Queen’s anger had been too terrible.

“Your Majesty would compel me to speak,” Gareth continued from the foot of the throne, bringing Elyssa back to herself. “But Your Majesty does not understand the Blue Horizon in the least.”

The Queen muttered something inaudible, but it had the ring of profanity. Gareth was right; she did not understand them. Elyssa herself had never spoken with any member of the Blue Horizon, but thanks to Lady Glynn, she knew what they wanted well enough. A world with no rich and poor was only the beginning; William Tear had wanted to eradicate narcotics, trafficking, bigotry, illiteracy, ignorance, organized religion, greed…in short, all of the ills of society. For a brief time, he had even succeeded, before his new civilization sank back down into the old mire. Now the Blue Horizon meant to follow in his footsteps. The rebels were a relatively new development in the Tearling; they had first shown up when Elyssa was a child. But they clearly weren’t going anywhere.

How is he still standing? Elyssa wondered, staring at the dark‑haired man below her. His injuries should have had him on his back, but instead he stared up the Queen, defiance in every muscle. And Elyssa suddenly wondered why her mother had brought him here, to her audience chamber, when such an outcome was inevitable. Did she mean to demonstrate publicly that the Blue Horizon were intractable? That seemed to be it, for now her mother gave a rueful sigh, and spoke in tones of ersatz regret.

“All of you Blue Horizon fools are alike. You will not be rea‑ soned with. Very well, you leave us no choice. Culp!”

Culp came forward. He was a tall, hatchet‑faced man, eternally devoid of expression. Technically, Culp was a member of the Queen’s Guard, but he did not wear a grey cloak, and Elyssa knew that the other guards were glad of it. Culp didn’t sleep in the guard quarters; he made his home in the dungeons, and though the reason was ostensibly one of efficiency, Elyssa was fairly sure that in the guard quarters, Culp would have had to sleep with one eye open.

“Majesty?” Culp asked.

“Take him back downstairs,” the Queen said dismissively. “Let him find his better world in the dungeon.”

“Yes, Majesty.” Culp grabbed Gareth’s shoulder roughly, clearly hoping to make him cry out. But Gareth didn’t so much as wince, and this, too, made Elyssa think of William Tear…William Tear, who had feared nothing, who had been strong enough to lead two thousand utopians across the ocean in search of a perfect society. There was strength in the man who stood before the throne, great strength, and in the face of that strength Elyssa felt suddenly ashamed that she had ever been cowed by a night in the dun‑ geons, that she had ever feared her mother’s glare.

I have never risked anything, she thought unhappily. I have lived in a castle all of my life, and I have never put myself on the line. When I take the throne, how brave will I be?

“We renew our condemnation of the rabble known as the Blue Horizon,” Queen Arla announced. “Further, we raise the existing bounty. The Crown will now pay seventy‑five pounds for any member brought in alive.”

Foolish, Elyssa thought, and she heard confirmation a moment later, low muttering from several corners of the hall. As always, Queen Arla’s audience was dominated by nobles, but a handful of people from the lower classes—entrepreneurs, mostly, but even some of the poor—always managed to get in, and they would make up an even greater proportion now, when so many nobles had returned to their local seats. The poor had embraced the Blue Horizon without reservation, particularly in the two years since the drought began; hardly surprising, but they weren’t the only ones. According to Givens, her mother’s Captain of Guard, a surprising number of merchants were clearly covering for the movement: providing weapons, storing and moving stolen goods, even providing safe houses for fugitives. Raising the bounty would only further alienate such people from the throne.

Culp hauled Gareth away, jerking him up the aisle that divided the crowd in two. Now Gareth finally stumbled, falling to one knee, and Culp kicked him in the ribs. The man was not made of iron, after all; he groaned loudly, the sound echoing across the room. Several of Elyssa’s guard muttered low curses behind her, and Niya drew a short, wounded breath. Elyssa’s stomach took a slow roll. She decided that the very first thing she would do upon taking the throne would be to sack and then imprison Welwyn Culp…but a moment later she realized that wouldn’t be good enough.

All of these people, she thought, watching the crowd…but the eye of her mind was looking much farther, beyond this room, out over the city below the Keep, the thousands of miles of tenanted farmland surrounding. More than three million people lived in the Tear, and one day they would all look to Elyssa, just as they now looked to her mother. Queen Arla was not popular, but she was feared, and the kingdom scurried under her gaze like ants…all except the Blue Horizon.

“The better world!” Gareth shouted now, heedless of Culp’s attempts to clap a hand over his mouth. “I see it! Circumstances of birth don’t matter! Kindness and humanity are everything!”

“Yes, yes,” the Queen murmured. “And golden unicorns shall fly out of William Tear’s ass.”

Laughter echoed across the room. Culp finally succeeding in muffling Gareth’s words, locking his head and dragging him forcibly up the aisle. But Gareth was still trying to speak, and he must have bitten Culp’s hand, for Culp uttered a low curse, then hauled back and slapped him.


Elyssa’s mouth had spoken of its own accord. The eyes of the room were suddenly upon her, and she swallowed hard, feeling something thick and starchy blocking her throat.

“Yes, Elyssa?”

Her mother’s voice was cold; she might not know what was coming, but she knew she wouldn’t like it. She did not turn toward Elyssa, but that was not surprising; Queen Arla did not turn her head in public for anyone. People were expected to present themselves before her, and after a moment’s hesitation, Elyssa did so. The Queen’s Guard parted before her, allowing her to move in front of her mother and drop to her knees.

“I would petition you, Mother, for this man’s life.”


“His life, Mother. I ask you to grant the prisoner clemency and release him.”

The Queen went white with anger. For a moment she seemed to have lost the ability to speak, and Elyssa had time to think that she might well be facing a worse punishment than a night in the dungeons, but then the room exploded with shouting, several voices echoing across the vast expanse.

“True Queen! True Queen!”

“The moon falls!”

“She comes!”

“Muzzle that!” Givens shouted angrily, snapping his fingers at several guards who stood at the bottom of the dais. Elyssa heard them go, but she couldn’t see them. She didn’t dare break her mother’s gaze. The Queen stared down at her, furious, but beneath the anger Elyssa sensed impatience and deep frustration. Before the Queen banished her from court, Lady Glynn had often remarked that Queen Arla was like every parent of a teenager in history, and though Elyssa was twenty‑one now, well out of her teens, the dynamic she shared with her mother had not matured. Out of the corner of her eye, Elyssa saw her younger brother, Thomas, smirking; he loved to see her in trouble.

Go ahead and smirk, you filthy little rapist. When I take the throne, I’ll imprison you too.

“This man is a terrorist,” the Queen said slowly, clearly choosing her words. “A danger to the kingdom. Why should we release him?”

“Because he knows nothing. If he did, Culp would have gotten it out of him. Welwyn Culp is, after all, the most feared interrogator in the New World…after Benin Ducarte, of course,” Elyssa added sweetly. The whole Keep knew that Culp hated being rated second against the Mort inquisitor.

The Queen’s eyes narrowed. Elyssa could have made many humanitarian pleas on behalf of Gareth, but she hadn’t bothered, for her mother only recognized and responded to coercion. The Queen couldn’t very well admit in open court that Culp hadn’t been able to flip a single real member of the Blue Horizon; such an admission would only add to the mystique around the movement, a mystique that was already causing Queen Arla considerable trouble. The Blue Horizon’s leader, the man they called the Fetch, was rumored to be either a magician or a shade. The mask he wore was said to have magical powers, the ability to turn men to stone, but it was his skills as a tactician that gave the Queen headaches. Nobles constantly came to court to complain of being robbed. Blue Horizon agents liked to travel the Almont periodically, distributing food and goods like Father Christmas himself, before disappearing like smoke. The Blue Horizon had stolen more than thirty thousand pounds’ worth of gold and arms in the past year alone.

Elyssa felt sure that her mother was considering all of these factors. Her brow was furrowed, and she tapped her nails on the arm of the throne, a sign of impatience. The Keep Priest, Father Timpany, standing just beside the throne, was not so restrained; he glared openly at Elyssa, who glared back. Six months before, God’s Church had excommunicated all members of the Blue Horizon, and the movement had responded promptly by robbing a caravan carrying an entire quarter’s tithe and hanging the escorting priest from a lamppost in the New London Circus. Atheism was the Blue Horizon’s most striking feature, distinguishing it from all the tiny rebellions that had come before. Blue Horizon speakers routinely counseled their audiences not to fear Hell, for Hell was here. It was a movement designed to draw in the poor and the downtrodden, but for Queen Arla, the Blue Horizon pre‑ sented a political problem, and the Queen was nothing if not a creature of politics. She could not afford to alienate the Church or the nobility by being soft on the revolutionaries, but even less could she afford to anger the poor…not now, not with a popular terrorist movement abroad, one that would take all recruits. Father Timpany could glare all he liked.

Power politics, Elyssa thought, staring up at the Queen. You wanted me to learn, Mother, and I am learning.

“Our daughter’s tender heart is well known,” the Queen an‑ nounced. Her knuckles were white points against the gleaming silver arms of the Tear throne. “We have heard her plea for clemency and been moved. Our own medics will tend to this young man’s wounds, and he will be released as soon as he is well. Culp, take him to the Queen’s Wing, and see that no further harm befalls him.”

Elyssa finally dared a glance behind her. Welwyn Culp nodded, his face expressionless, and signaled for two members of the army to help him support Gareth. As they took him up the aisle, Gareth’s feet dragged; he had fainted. Elyssa thought she might faint herself; the moment her mother broke eye contact, she stood and moved quickly back to her corner of the dais. Her legs were trembling. Standing up to her mother in private was one thing; doing it in public was another matter entirely. Father Timpany had begun to mutter in the Queen’s ear, but the Queen waved him to silence. The crowd murmured uncertainly, and Elyssa wondered if they could feel it as well, the odd power around these Blue Horizon people. William Tear was long dead, and yet—

“Majesty,” Gullys, the chamberlain, announced. “Lord March.”

“March,” the Queen greeted him warmly; in a world of courtiers and panderers, Lord March was a rare genuine friend. The Queen’s voice was so casual and pleased that only Elyssa knew what lay beneath.

I am in trouble, she thought. Quite a bit of it.

And what of that? a caustic voice spoke up in her mind. This kingdom is in trouble, Elyssa. Grow up.

“What can we do for you, Lord March?”

“Majesty, I come on behalf of the Almont Coalition.”

The Queen’s pleased smile melted away. Elyssa bit back a smile of her own. The Almont Coalition was a loose union of some three hundred nobles whose acres covered the Almont Plain. Lord March was a friend, yes, but first and foremost, he was a noble. This would be about the drought, for certain.

“And what would the Coalition have of us?” the Queen asked, her voice cold.

“The drought, Majesty. The situation in the Almont has become critical.”

That was an understatement, Elyssa thought. She read the Crown harvest reports, probably more carefully than her mother did. After two straight dry years, there had been almost no snow over the past winter, not even in the mountains, and it had not rained once since February. The vast farming plain of the Almont was utterly dependent on the two rivers, Caddell and Crithe, but at last report, both rivers had been down several feet, and the tributaries were almost dry. The Tear’s natural irrigation systems were crippled. If it didn’t rain soon, there would be no harvest to speak of.

“There is no water, Majesty,” Lord March continued. “The top of the Crithe is already drying up. There are barely any early crops.”

“Surely you have hoarded water?” the Queen asked. “My intelligence says you have a cistern on your acreage.”

“Your Majesty is well informed,” Lord March replied, and Elyssa could hear the displeasure in his voice. “But the cistern is barely enough to carry me and mine through the winter. If the rivers run dry, we will need all of our stored water to drink.”

“Well? Do you think I can compel the rain?”

“Perhaps, Majesty,” Lord March replied, executing a polite bow. Chuckles echoed through the hall. “But our concern is food. What little crop has sprouted so far is wilted. I will not have enough to feed my household, let alone my tenants. I have given them license to hunt game on my lands, to ward off starvation through the harvest. But that will not last once winter comes. I have twelve hundred tenants on my acreage, Majesty. Even with a tight belt, my hoarded stores won’t be enough to feed a tenth of them through the winter. Every landowner in the Almont faces the same problem.”

“And again I ask, March: what do you want me to do about it?”

“The Crown storehouses, Majesty. We seek an assurance that if the drought continues and worse comes to worst, Your Majesty will open her stores to us, for distribution to our tenants.”

“The weather will turn, March.”

“Yes, Majesty, but if it doesn’t—”

“It will,” the Queen replied, in a tone that cut off all discussion. “This is the only assurance I give you.”

Lord March clearly longed to argue, but after another moment he bowed again and said, “I have apprised you of our concerns. Thank you, Majesty.”


Lord March retreated into the crowd. Elyssa stared after him, biting her lip. She rarely ventured out into the city; security concerns were too great. But she read her mother’s intelligence reports. The city had already begun to feel the bite of the failing harvest; even now, in May, prices for produce were rocketing upward. If the drought went on, things would only grow worse. Water was not a concern in the city, at least not to drink; unlike the Almont, which was dependent on the two rivers, New London got its drinking water from a deep‑buried aquifer that ran down from the Clayton Mountains to join the Caddell south of the city. But the aquifer would not provide food for the city, and nothing would help the million tenants in the Almont. Men could live for some time without food, but no one could survive for more than a few days without water.

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