Saturday, February 15, 2020

Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender

I'm doing a project for Black History Month where I'm trying to read as many books by black and biracial authors as possible. Most of the ones I've done so far have been realistic fiction, but QUEEN OF THE CONQUERED is fantasy. I'd read some of Kacen Callender's work before, but their style is much, much different here than it was in KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES. KING was a mild coming-of-age story about sexuality and identity written for the middle grade audience. QUEEN (ha) is a brutal adult fantasy novel that serves as a direct parallel to the cruel and devastating colonialism of Afro-Caribbean peoples by the Dutch. Here, the islanders work as slaves in the tropical paradise that used to be their home. Their colonizers are called the kongelig, and all of the major ruling families have plantations where they rule with the dual fists of physical punishment and magic. You see, the kongelig prize something called the "kraft." Some of the islanders have it too, but fearing rebellion, any islander found with the power of "kraft" is put to death.

Our heroine, Sigourney, is a biracial woman who, against all odds, is the lady of her own plantation. Her mother was a freed slave that her white father fell in love with (he freed her and then married her). But the other colonizers took umbrage with this, and had Sigourney's whole family murdered. She survived where none of the others did and rose from the ashes to claim her birthright. But this isn't your typical chosen one vs. the oppressors story-- it's much darker and more complex than that. Sigourney likes her power, and wants to inherit the whole island once the ruling king dies. She's willing to use her people as pawns to make this happen, even though she tells herself that she'll free them when she becomes queen. But, she can't help but wonder, where will the money come from with no slaves to work the land? What will happen to the economy? In her heart of hearts, she knows the answer to these questions, as well as the darkness clouding her heart.

Sigourney also has the kraft and she's incredibly powerful-- she can reach into people's bodies and control them like puppets and she can also read minds. These powers are indispensable, as she is loathed on both sides. Her people hate her for being a traitor and the other kongelig hate her because she represents a mockery to her way of life. Watching Sigourney navigate the viper's nest of court intrigue with the other plantation nobles in her endless quest for power, while trying to figure out a dark mystery that lies in the center of the island and becomes increasingly more perilous as blood spills and ghosts rise from the grave, the reader can't help but root for Sigourney-- even if they know deep down that they shouldn't. She's a truly morally grey heroine, whose decisions are frightening because they make us question the actions we might take when faced with similar decisions.

I LOVED this book. It seems like a lot of people didn't like it because it takes forever to get moving, but I honestly love slow world-building if I love the world. Pacing-wise, this book actually reminded me a lot of another book I read recently, called VITA NOSTRA. The plots are nothing similar, but both books are like sinking into a hot bath that suddenly becomes boiling-- you don't realize just how deadly the narrative is until you're already in hot water. QUEEN OF THE CONQUERED could have been shorter, yes, but I honestly loved all the time we got to spend in Sigourney's head. It made me really feel for her character in a way that's a lot harder in shorter books. Even though I didn't like her, I could understand and sympathize with her, which is the hallmark of great writing.

Anyone who wants to learn about how colonialism works and the toxic effects it has on a land and people should read this book. It was incredibly represented and despite being a fantasy novel, raised a lot of real-world problems like privilege, abuse of power, institutional racism, consent, love, and the fine line between good and evil. I honestly can't wait to read KING OF THE RISING. I think it's going to really take the world by storm (get it, because the series is called Islands of Blood & Storm?). Anyway, bad puns aside, do yourself a favor and read this book. It's amazing.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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