The Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
Trigger Warning: Slavery, Murder, Graphic Torture, Rape
As a child, Sigourney Rose’s family was brutally murdered by the colonizers of her home islands. Now an adult, and as the only islander member of the ruling classes, Sigourney has vowed revenge on all who wronged her family. She’s going to kill them all, and take the crown for herself. But on the island of Hans Lollik Helle, she becomes the target of a strange, mysterious magic—and the nobles start dying around her.
This was such a hard book to rate.
I am far from qualified to talk about any of the various themes and nuances of this book, so please forgive my weak attempts to explain my feelings on this.
On the one hand—brilliant, amazing world-building. It was brutal, it was fresh, it was nuanced. That plot twist!
I have never read a Caribbean-inspired fantasy before that tackled colonialism and slavery, and it was brutal and eye-opening. Seriously—pay attention to those trigger warnings. This is not a delicate book that plays to delicate sensibilities. It goes there and it rubs your nose in the horrible reality of slavery and what actually happened (minus the magic parts).
The world-building and the nuance was just brilliant. I can’t stress that enough. The imagery of the islands and their beauty juxtaposed with the horrifying reality of the islander slaves was stark, as was the colonizing Fjerns who were patently out of place as colonizers and who hated the islands but depended upon the islands for their very existence and continued relevance. Better to be a big fish in a small pond than a nobody at home, right?
On the other hand—the exposition.
Holy guacamole the exposition.
This book was literally nothing but tell, tell, tell with a dash of show involved (the showing shined in the descriptions, which were both horrible and gorgeous).
Part of the problem was that the book exists entirely in angsty Sigourney’s head, and since Sigourney is a telepath, in everyone else’s heads too. Many conversations were started in dialogue and then transitioned into prose, being entirely relayed after-the-fact in a way that was disconnecting and just wanted me to scream.
The other part of the problem was the repetition. So much of this book is repeated, from descriptions to motivations to themes to everything else. I was told about the history of the Rose family, the Lund family, everyone else and the descriptions of just about everything so many damn times…like it was the first time I was reading it. It made the pacing feel uneven and like it deserved better editing, because the talent is just fucking spilling off the page.
My final complaint was the angst. Holy shit Sigourney angsted over everything under the damn sun.
To how much everyone hated her. From the colonizers for her having dark skin and daring to be one of them. To the islanders who hated her for her freedom and her being one of the nobility and therefore part of the entire problem. To herself, for not being loved as her mother was and for looking into a mirror and seeing only herself reflected back, and seeing that reflection as something awful and horrible and wrong. She could look into people’s minds, but saw only what she wanted to see.
I understand the angst. I get it. I completely emphasize with it as well (although as a white person, I have not and will never experience racism). Sigourney was an amalgamation of her circumstances—in between both worlds, yet yearning to belong to the kongelig so fiercely, for the acceptance of the colonizers and the ruling elite because she’s not like one of them,, and also fiercely wanting the love of her slaves and the people she was descended from, and wanting to be their queen and unite their worlds. Not, you know, to actually free the islanders, because that would be economically unfeasible, but to rule over them as one of their own. And also one of the kongelig.
So the angst part of it was something that I loved, but also was incredibly frustrating because it turned Sigourney into a wet Hamlet, filled with indecision and overthinking and agonizing over everything (and especially Løren—seriously, just kill the dude, you murdered everyone else with impunity).
Sigourney literally does nothing but think. (sorry not sorry)
Events happen around her. She’s implicated. She has machinations and ambitions, and talks through them (and shares her ambitions with literally everyone, spilling her grand secret scheme within the first 30% of the book) and does some things but doesn’t really follow through with anything?? She’s done literally years of studying these people and has the ability to read their minds, but makes some of the dumbest choices.
She’s not supposed to be a sympathetic main character (oh, faaaaaaar from it), but I mean if you’re gonna be bad—be bad. Don’t half ass that shit.
So with all my bitching, why the four stars?
Honestly, this wavered in between a two and four star read. The smart thing to do would be rate it as three and continue one with my merry way, but that ending.
The murders, the deaths of the kongelig, the absolute infighting among the nobles—and Sigourney’s own focus on her people (the Fjerns) and the motivations of literally everyone on the island. The mystery of the king and the rebellions and who was behind everything. Omg that reveal was, in hindsight, so damn obvious, but, like Sigourney, I was oblivious to it.
So: read this for the politicking, the unique world and well-crafted setting, the deconstruction of colonialism and slavery, for some interesting magic systems, and the dictionary definition of internalized systematic racism and vertical integration that is Sigourney Rose/Lund/Jannik.
Avoid if endless angst and exposition aren’t your thing.