Blurring Good and Evil: Kacen Callender – Queen of the Conquered

As I’ve been on holiday (thus the hiatus this past week), I had the pleasure of reading Kacen Callender’s adult fantasy debut by a lovely blue lake in between sessions of trekking up mountains, trying Stand Up Paddlel for the first time (it rocks!), and steaming in the sauna… That may have colored my experience a bit, but even if I’d read this at home during rainy days, this book would have left me deeply impressed.

Queen of the ConqueredQUEEN OF THE CONQUERED
by Kacen Callender

Published: Orbit, 2019
eBook: 401 pages
Series: Islands of Blood and Storm #1
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: My mother kissed my forehead with a smile when I cried, upset that the party would carry on as I was sent away to sleep, and while I lay awake in my bed of lace, huddled beneath my covers and shivering in the cool trade-winds breeze, I heard when the tinkling piano stopped and when the laughter turned to screams.

An ambitious young woman with the power to control minds seeks vengeance against the royals who murdered her family, in a Caribbean-inspired fantasy world embattled by colonial oppression.
Sigourney Rose is the only surviving daughter of a noble lineage on the islands of Hans Lollik. When she was a child, her family was murdered by the islands’ colonizers, who have massacred and enslaved generations of her people—and now, Sigourney is ready to exact her revenge.
When the childless king of the islands declares that he will choose his successor from amongst eligible noble families, Sigourney uses her ability to read and control minds to manipulate her way onto the royal island and into the ranks of the ruling colonizers. But when she arrives, prepared to fight for control of all the islands, Sigourney finds herself the target of a dangerous, unknown magic.
Someone is killing off the ruling families to clear a path to the throne. As the bodies pile up and all eyes regard her with suspicion, Sigourney must find allies among her prey and the murderer among her peers… lest she become the next victim.

There is a lot to unpack in this book. We first meet Sigourney Rose as a young child on the night her entire family is murdered during a party by the White people inhabiting the islands of Hans Lollik because a dark-skinned prosperous family just doesn’t fit into their world view. Sigourney survives, however, and grows up with one thing on her mind: vengeance! She has a plan to take over the Caribbean-inspired islands as ruler, free all of her people, and kill everyone who had a hand in murdering her family.

Whew! That premise alone tells you that this is not a particularly enjoyable book, but there’s more. Kacen Callender added magic, and while it’s not the most original type of magic, it makes the story just so much cooler. Sigourney can read minds, kind of go into someone else’s brain and look at their memories, but she can also kind of possess someone else’s body and make them do things… Yeah, it’s exactly as terrifying as it sounds and the first few chapters illustrate this horrible power very well. Sigourney is dealing with a slave uprising by entering the minds of some of the rebels and making them kill themselves in brutal ways. She is not an easy character to like.

Which brings me to the aspect that most intrigued me. Sigourney is dark-skinned herself, she sees that her people are enslaved and she desperately wants to free them, to give them back a life of their own. She hates the kongelig (the ruling colonizers of her islands) deeply and has no qualms about killing them all to reach her goal. But at the same time, when we meet her, she herself is a slave owner who plays by the questionable rules of the White slave owners. We learn early on that she only does this to reach her ultimate goal – which is essentially good – but it constantly raises the question whether the means justify the end and whether doing “a few” bad things for the greater good is okay. Sigourney questions herself many times but even though she hates herself for executing her own, for making them work for her, for owning slaves, her mission remains her number one focus.

Through intrigue and by using her kraft of mind reading, she manages to marry into one of the ruling families, becoming a candidate for the next king of Hans Lollik. It is only when she meets a young slave whose mind she just can’t seem to enter that things stop going according to her plan. This slave Loren is biracial and easily the most interesting character in this book. Sigourney is equally intrigued by him and decides to keep him as her personal guard – despite the fact that he was sent to assassinate her.
Speaking of assassination. When all the kongelig are called to the island of Hans Lollik Helle where the king resides and plans to pick his successor, the death rate goes up rapidly. This is not surprising because apparently, it’s normal for potential successors to kill off the competition in order to give them a better shot at the throne. But to me, it felt like what Gideon the Ninth tried to do, but more successful, with a bigger impact when someone dies.

We get to know the other kongelig and while it’s easy to dismiss them all as villains who came to these islands, eslaved its people, and live in luxury while slaves work their plantations, there is more nuance to them. Sure, none of them grows particularly sympathetic, but some of them are definitely more evil than others and I even caught myself feeling sorry for some of them. Even as members of the ruling class, they deal with sexism and suffer under the rules of their own society and while that doesn’t make their actions any less terrible, it makes them feel like real people. A good villain should always act in a way that, while I wouldn’t condone it in any way, at least makes sense when you put yourself i their shoes. And Kacen Callender created a whole cast of such villains. Not all of them are bad people, they are simply caught in the world they were born into and they don’t have the courage or strength to do something about it. Other are just despicably but even they have something that humanises them to a degree.

I haven’t even touched upon the way race is dealt with in this book because it’s another complex topic that Callender tackles in amazing ways. Sigourney’s character is perfect for that because although she has dark skin and it’s her own people that have been enslaved by the colonizers, she herself is a noblewoman. The other (White) nobles don’t like her and what she represents – a dark-skinned woman rising up to power – but she is equally hated by the slaves of Hans Lollik. And that hate weighs heavily on Sigourney, not just because she wishes she could tell all the slaves that she’s only doing what she’s doing to free them but also because she is so utterly lonely. She has one friend (ironically the only one of her slaves that she actually freed but who stayed of her own volition) but is otherwise completely alone in this hostile world where most other people want to see her dead. This made it easier to like her but her actions throughout the story also never really let me connect with her emotionally.

When it comes to the writing style, I have some small nitpicks. Callender uses the phrase “skin as dark as mine” entirely too often. There are other ways to describe someone as dark-skinned. Simply call them dark-skinned or “with brown skin” or anything else. But the exact words “skin as dark as mine/ours” is thrown around way too often and actually took me out of the reading flow. It does get better as the novel progresses but at the beginning especially, you’ll see it on every page. Other than that, I quite liked the writing. Callender doesn’t shy away from describing terrible things but they never felt gratuitous. I particularly liked how quickly characters came to life and how the world building was down almost exclusively thorugh showing instead of telling. It does mean the book has a bit of a learning curve, especially if (like me) you didn’t know that the real Caribbean was colonized not just by the British and French, but also the Dutch and Danish – which explains all the very Danish sounding names. But a quick trip to Wikipedia will give you some context and even if you don’t feel like reading up on our own history, you can easily follow the events of this book. I just personally like a bit of context when a story I read is based or inspired by the real world.

It goes without saying that this is a rather dark book. The story takes place in a time and place where slavery existed, it has characters with incredible powers, it goes on to a “And Then There Were None” sub plot and there is quite a bit of violence and abuse, both physical and emotional. By a certain point, I kept asking myself how this book could possibly end. Even if Sigourney reached her goal and became the new Queen of the islands, would she really do what she set out to do? Would she free her people or would she find a new goal that made it “necessary” for her to keep slaves just a bit longer? Well, Kacen Callender surprised and delighted me with the ending they chose. It not only resolves Sigourney’s story in a satisfying, believable way, but it also adds a twist that hit me in the gut and made me re-examine my own way of thinking. That’s all I can say without spoiling but trust me on this: If you pick up this book, you will get a satisfying ending.

Although this could well stand on its own, I look forward to the sequel King of the Rising, which is set to come out in December 2020. Although with the Covid-19 pandemic still going strong in certain parts of the world, I don’t know if that date will be pushed back. Either way, when the book comes out and I have enough brain power and emotional strength I will definitely pick it up. Queen of the Conquered has also been nominated for a World Fantasy Award – deservedly so – and it’s currently super cheap on Kobo. Just sayin’…
The only reason I’m not giving it 8/10 points is that while Sigourney was a super intriguing protagonist, I couldn’t fully root for her and always remained just a bit distant from her emotionally. And the way dark-skinned characters are constantly described the same way. But this was still a fantastic book, an important book, and one that was well worth the long time it took me to read.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good!