The story's strength comes from the development of the titular Queen, Kelsea. She is no typical princess, rather plain and slightly overweight. She was raised by foster parents in secret, knowing she will be queen. They educated her well, as well as developing her character and thinking skills, though they kept secret information about her mother and current affairs. Kelsea is an odd mix of preparedness and naivete, making this a coming of age story, but it does not pull any punches or feel oversimplified. Kelsea is claiming her Queenship in difficult times, with the Regent’s opposition, assassination attempts, and being an unknown and untried. The book has a strong supporting cast with great character interactions. Kelsea may be the Queen, but it is not enough without support from others to make things happen. She gains the respect of key figures by the strength of her character, thinking through situations, proving herself, and earning respect.
Johansen's novel is well-written and complex. The writing is clear and concise, fitting Kelsea’s story and development as a thinking queen. The usual language that can make reading epic fantasy intimidating is absent. The world building of the Tearling occurs with pieces of history sprinkled throughout the novel, which adds intrigue to this world, as readers make sense of the world and political situation. This seemingly medieval fantasy world has connections to “our world.” It makes the Tearling that much more compelling than if it was just a made-up medieval fantasy world and suggests something happened to lead to her world. The situations Kelsea deals with are not easy, so it is a balancing act with Kelsea being inexperienced but still handling and managing things in a believable way. The idea of Kelsea as a thinking Queen and the complex political situations take this beyond just an adventure story and typical good versus evil.