Dilemma, thy name is, apparently, The Invasion of the Tearling. On the one hand, this book is a much darker story, giving me meat to dig into after the sugary sweetness of the first novel. On the other hand, holy middle book syndrome, Batman! The plot is a drag as the author crams in all the preparation for the third book, leaving this book with very little plot of its own.
The Invasion of the Tearling picks up where its predecessor left off - with the consequences of Kelsea's actions. The Red Queen is royally peeved by the end of the slave tribute and desperately wants Kelsea's sapphires, so her army invades. The Tearling army can't stop it, only buy time for Kelsea. Meanwhile, Kelsea's sapphires are transforming her, sculpting her into the image of a woman from the past and giving her flashbacks to pre-Crossing Earth.
If the above paragraph doesn't make it plain, the two driving events of this novel are the approaching Mort army and Kelsea trying to unravel the mystery of her flashbacks to Lily. While there are a few sideplots (such as the new leader of God's Church and his general conservative craziness, and Kelsea's first affair), everything hinges on these two things - and it drags and drags until the inevitable conclusion. Maybe the reason it feels slow is that (aside from a few Red Queen POV chapters and the flashbacks) the story hardly ever leaves the keep, but there are ways to keep a plot in one place and still keep it moving.
There is a cliffhanger ending. You'll see it coming from a mile away, yet despite that, it will still make you want to read the third book immediately. It did for me, despite the predictability (I mean, c'mon guys, we know it ends well - all the epigraphs are from the future and talk glowingly about Kelsea).
Even the revelations aren't really revelations. (SPOILERS AHEAD: STUFF YOUR FINGERS IN YOUR EARS AND SCROLL TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW). I'd suspected from the first book that the world had something to do with Earth, and that's borne out by this novel. It's not difficult to guess that Lily will be William Tear's wife and mother to the oft-mentioned Jonathan Tear. And as for the revelation that the Red Queen is (GASP) a former member of House Raleigh, I'd pegged that one since the first book.
Unfortunately, there's just nothing new, surprising or all that terribly exciting about most of the plot.
What this book does do, and does extremely well, is take a dive in the dark end of the storytelling pool. The portrayal of spousal abuse and martial rape is viscerally disturbing and yet oddly compelling. It forces us to sympathize with Lily, when we might otherwise struggle because of how spoiled and pampered she is. More, it motivates her to progress as a character. The pre-Crossing world is also terrifying, especially for a woman - gender equality has skipped back several centuries, and woman are once again useful only for delivering children and serving as mothers. It definitely explains the odd dichotomy of the post-Crossing world, where there are several ruling female monarchs and yet women don't seem to have many rights.
The darkness isn't confined to the flashbacks either. The dark thing from first book is back again, and now it's tempting Kelsea with offers of power. (For my thoughts on the creature's identity, refer to previous comments on how easy it is to guess the plot of this book.) Kelsea also develops a cutting habit for some reason, though she quits by the end of the novel.
There are bright spots to this book that are enjoyable - I truly like Kelsea's court priest, with his love of books and the backbone he shows in trying to do the right thing. By the end of the book, his whereabouts are unknown, and I am looking forward to his return in the third book. The Mace is as interesting as ever, especially as we find out little pieces of his past, and the end that Arlen Thorne meets is grimly satisfying.
I ended up somewhere in the middle on this one. The Invasion of the Tearling replaces the first book's bright-eyed, simple charm with something much more grim, and while I enjoyed the change of tone, I found the plot floundering as Johansen sets up all the pieces she needs in place for the final novel. It was still enjoyable, and I look forward to reading the conclusion, but it's not going to make my Best Of 2016 list.