Queen of the Conquered
by Kacen Callender
400pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 6/10
Amazon Rating: 4.4/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.25/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.57/5

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Book Description:

An engrossing tale of colonialism, conquest and revenge, Queen of the Conquered starts a fantasy series perfect for readers of S. A. Chakraborty, Ken Liu, and Tasha Suri.

On the islands of Hans Lollik, Sigourney Rose was the only survivor when her family was massacred by the colonizers. When the childless king of the islands declares he will choose his successor from amongst eligible noble families, Sigourney is ready to exact her revenge.

But someone is killing off the ruling families to clear a path to the throne. And 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.

Queen of the Conquered, Kacen Callender’s World Fantasy Award–nominated first novel for adults, is a US Virgin Islands–inspired fantasy book told from the first-person perspective of Sigourney Rose, the daughter of a freed slave and a man from the only family to rule one of the islands of Hans Lollik—and the last member of her family after the rest were murdered.

Like many from ruling families, Sigourney has kraft, a special ability that the colonizers view as a divine gift bestowed upon the worthy (although they apparently believe themselves to be better judges of worthiness than their gods, given that they also execute slaves who possess kraft). Since she was born free, Sigourney does not meet the same fate as other islanders, despite having an exceptionally strong and dangerous power: she can feel other people’s thoughts and emotions so keenly she can practically become them, and she can even erase someone’s memories or compel them to walk into danger.

Between her ability and position, Sigourney has rare privilege for an islander, but she’s not treated as an equal by the other rulers because of her race. The other islanders have no love for her, either, as she’s also cruel to her slaves, having them beaten for disobedience, ordering them executed for having kraft, and taking one to her bed knowing he can’t refuse her. She can feel their disgust and hatred toward her, but neither their loathing nor her own is enough for her to break the cycle of abuse, even as she dreams of eventually becoming the next queen and freeing her people.

Sigourney’s character was inspired by the history of Black slaveowners and imagining what one might be like, according to the excellent interview with Kacen Callender at the end of the book. They discussed the novel originating from “the idea of someone who could know the pain of their own people, but then cause that same pain when given the chance to gain power by oppressing others.” I really appreciate the thoughtfulness and courage that went into developing Sigourney as a deliberately unlikable character, especially after reading about how the author examined some uncomfortable truths in the process. The overall story arc and the way it relies on Sigourney’s perspective—or lack thereof—and the lies she tells herself is well done and makes for a fascinating character study.

But aside from those aspects, I didn’t find Queen of the Conquered particularly compelling as a novel. At first, I was intrigued by Sigourney with her rage over the massacre of her family and plot to become queen, which involved using her power to maneuver herself into a better political position. However, I went from being curious about where it was headed to finding it a struggle to turn the pages as it seemed that Sigourney’s story got more and more weighed down by both her own thoughts and others.

With her power, she sinks into others’ thoughts a lot, and this leads to reading a bunch of neatly organized, relevant infodumps on what made many of the other characters who they were rather than showing who they were through their actions and dialogue—which could have worked, of course, but these sections all seemed rather dry, dull, and similar, despite Sigourney’s ability to sink so deeply into others’ thoughts that she basically becomes them. One character whose mind Sigourney did not read was also the one she had the best interactions with, and although that’s probably largely due to the complicated relationship and history between them, it probably also helped that this was not divulged through mind reading.

Much of the big revelation about the mysteries of what had been happening on the royal island was also unveiled through a big mind-reading infodump toward the end. The revelation itself was great (predictable, but fitting nevertheless), but revealing it this way made it boring and removed all the tension from it.

Although Queen of the Conquered didn’t entirely work for me, I do appreciate the overall concept and that it had enough unique elements to stand out in my memory despite my problems with it.

My Rating: 6/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from Queen of the Conquered