Beneath the Keep is the Queen of the Tearling prequel you didn’t know you needed

Beneath the Keep by Erika Johansen. Image courtesy Penguin Random House
Beneath the Keep by Erika Johansen. Image courtesy Penguin Random House /

Erika Johansen’s fantasy debut The Queen of the Tearling was published in 2014 and the trilogy that followed was everything that readers could have asked for: A compelling story set in a rich, fully-formed universe with three-dimensional characters and real, life or death stakes. I read much of the original series with my heart in my throat and cried real tears when it was over.

Beneath the Keep is a prequel, set in the same world before Kelsea Raleigh Glynn’s arrival, and had you asked me prior to reading it if I felt that the story of the Tearling was unfinished, that it somehow needed an additional volume, I would have said no. And I would have been deeply wrong.

Beneath the Keep is a story that can stand on its own; you don’t need to have read any of Johansen’s other novels to fully enjoy this twisty tale of statecraft and rebellion, prophecy, and growth. But, oh, if you have, then everything suddenly gets turned up to eleven emotionally, particularly as the story careens to the ending that leads to the events of The Queen of the Tearling. There’s a feeling of a lock slipping into place, a fully circular journey that feels like fate. That this book exists is a gift to fans of Johansen’s work, and if there’s any justice, it’ll bring new fans to the original trilogy in the wake of its publication.

The story follows multiple characters, but predominantly focuses on a man named Christian but known as Lazarus, a bare-knuckle fighter who ekes out a living in the Creche, the seedy underworld of New London, where rebel group Blue Horizon’s dreams of a better world don’t often penetrate. Elsewhere, Princess Elyssa Raleigh dreams of a day when she’ll take her mother’s throne, and become a queen who can help the people suffering in her kingdom. And farmer’s daughter Aislinn Martin struggles to keep her family fed in the wake of a once-in-a-generation drought and increasing demands from the landowning nobility for more work and higher rents.

Their stories all eventually intertwine with one another’s, as well as a half dozen other characters to form a whole that is richer than the sum of its parts, full of hope, horror, and meaning in equal measure. There’s a dark plot to take over a kingdom, a prophecy of a better world for all, a witch attempting to bend the world to her master’s whim, and a child sent to one day lead her kingdom into the light. Sacrifice, betrayal, and shocking twists abound, all the way up to an ending that’s somehow both grim and hopeful at the same time.

Reader, I adored it.

Those who have read Johansen’s other Tearling novels will love the backstory given to several fan-favorite characters, but none more so than the Mace, who it turns out has always been a hero and a good man despite his protests to the contrary. We meet a younger, more idealistic Carroll, a softer Barty, a Lady Glynn who is…still entirely Lady Glynn. And, for those who had issues with Kelsea’s parentage in the later novels, perhaps seeing her parents up close in this story will help soothe some of those wounds.

Generally, prequels can go either way – triumph or outright cash grab – but Beneath the Keep is a rare story that actually feels as though it adds valuable information and perspective to the books that come after it. A must-read for those who liked the original series, and a strong recommendation for anyone who likes well-written fantasy.

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Beneath the Keep is available now in print, digital, and audiobook formats. Let us know if you’re a fan of the Tearling series or plan to add this to your February reading list!