Thank you to Orbit for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review!
I can feel their fear. Fear that they’ll all be killed for failing to protect their masters. Fear that I’ll decide they’re lying, and that they were all a part of the rebellion. Fear from all—except for the older woman. She stares at me, blue film over her eyes. She’s seen more hatred, more evil, than I ever have—probably more than I ever will. The Fjern, who gave me the power I hold, stalking through the plantations in the dead of night when she was a child. Raping her mother and her sister and herself, slicing open the bottoms of her feet and burning the palms of her hands and making her work the fields, threatening death if she stopped for even a breath, hanging her father for daring to meet his master’s eye, beating and whipping and tying up a little boy child and leaving him outside in the sun to be eaten away by the salt air, and all because he wouldn’t stop crying for his mother after she was sold away. Islanders, tying rocks around their ankles and walking into the sea to escape the hell of Hans Lollik.
Queen of the Conquered is a fearless new addition to the SFF world, tackling issues such as slavery, colonialism, and the structures that perpetuate bigotry from within. Kacen Callender, formerly published under Kheryn Callender, doesn’t flinch and holds no punches as he discusses these issues in a gritty, hands-on manner. He does not shy away from the harsh brutality of slavery and the day-to-day life required for plantation-style economies. Slavery is often used as a backdrop within the SFF genre – while it may have some impact on the main character, the sheer dehumanization that accompanies it fails to come through. It may provide plot momentum or motivation for a set of characters, but rarely does an author allow it to truly permeate their work. Frequently, it also falls to a “white saviour” character to end the slavery. Kacen takes that trope and uses it to draw the reader in, making them see the world from a perspective that is both similar and foreign to their own… and then twists, pulling the rug out from below.
Right from the start, it was clear that this would not be a kind or heartwarming book. If the cover deceived you into believing this would be a standard hero-centric fantasy novel, perhaps with some YA elements, you will quickly discover that this is not the book you believed. Within the first pages, Sigourney Rose’s family is executed before her eyes for the color of their skin and for threatening the power of the white men and women who rule the islands of Hans Lollik. At that moment, Sigourney swears an oath to her mother: she will become regent of the islands. She will be the snake in the orchard. She will turn them against one another, and she will destroy the Fjern from within.
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. I slipped out of bed and went to my balcony of stone to see the garden below, streaks of yellow light falling from the windows and across the grass where my mother’s guests were ushered to the rose mallow by the men with their drawn machetes. I saw my sisters crying, my brother struggling, my mother pleading as they were forced to their knees. A hand covered my eyes, but I heard the moment their tangled screams were swallowed by silence.
The setting and characters were by far the most compelling aspects of this novel. To be quite frank, I have never encountered another SFF novel that discusses the reality of slavery with such uninhibited frankness – and if anyone reading this review has, I would dearly love it if you pointed me in that direction. Other books may discuss killings. They may discuss whippings, or uprises, or oppression. A slave may be killed for insubordination. However, I have yet to encounter another that truly immerses the reader into a world where the master class is waited on hand and foot with true, complete power over the slaves in their possession. I have yet to encounter another that captures the fear of immediate, unpredictable, and horrific retribution in response to even the smallest rebellions. When a slave attempts to run to the Northern countries in search of freedom, their family, their friends, and other members of the community are the ones who face death as punishment. Even if they were to succeed, they know they have doomed everyone they care for to an awful, painful death.
All the masters of the plantation had been killed. Herre Lund ended the uprising swiftly. Every slave on the plantation, whether they claimed innocence or not—whether they were children or not—was executed, their bodies staked and hung from trees so that the other slaves of this island could see.
Even Sigourney herself is not immune to the race-based assumptions her culture makes; although she, too, is of black islander descent, she has been raised with at least a piece of the Fjern class’s privilege due to an accident of heritage that allowed her entry into the white echelons of Hans Lollik. Although she has sworn to overturn the Fjern, she nevertheless feels a need and desire to please and placate them. She frequently conforms to social pressures despite having no real incentive to do so. Sigourney kills slaves who exhibit kraft, a form of mind-magic, even when it would be possible to release them with no repercussions. Even in the first few chapters, she quells a rebellion by torching the village to the ground rather than using empathy or diplomacy. She may have the dark skin of the islanders, but she becomes an unreliable and skewed narrator due to having grown up abroad and within the circles of the Fjern.
Due to her elevated social status, Sigourney is the only islander who both has kraft and is allowed to live. The Fjern view is as a gift of the gods, and they believe it is blasphemous that someone of color could practice it. In Sigourney’s case, her kraft has manifested as an ability to not only read minds, but also to control them. She can become another person. She can influence their thinking, force their actions, or simply skim thoughts for new information. Others of the Fjern have different abilities; one is able to activate the pain receptors across someone’s body, another can instill fear in those near her, and so on and so forth. Generally speaking, Sigourney’s is considered to be the strongest kraft in all of Hans Lollik at this time given its immense flexibility. I thoroughly enjoyed watching her employ it as she sought to manipulate the Fjern and capture the regency of the islands. She wields it as a weapon, even as she finds herself filled with disgust for her own actions.
The rebel, machete shining, swings at Friedrich, but I focus on the slave, his rage and fear of death, yes, he wants to live more than anything else, and his mind becomes my mind as he slices his own gut, mouth open in surprise.
The one aspect that did not work well for me in this book was the pacing. Around a third of the way through the novel, I was already able to see the final direction the book would take. Additionally, I found that it became a bit of a slog at times. It did ultimately serve its purpose in that it hammered home the perspective that Callender sought to present most strongly to the reader, but it becomes a bit much once you’ve already managed to grasp the book’s end game. I think the middle third of the novel will have a mixed impact, largely dependent on the individual reader. In some cases, I could see it having a strong impact that would otherwise be lost – to say more would verge too closely on spoilers, however. Suffice it to say that it’s a great subversion of expectations that perhaps could have been made more concise to maximize its impact.
Despite that issue, the book as a whole was nevertheless deeply impressive for its deft handling of a piece of culture that most white people tend to shove beneath the rug. Queen of the Conquered forces an uncomfortable and often alarming perspective onto the reader, casting them in the role of both the oppressor and the oppressed with masterful control. Callender has added a work of incredible cultural depth and import to the SFF canon. Put simply, this is required reading for anyone with even a speck of interest in the complex social and racial issues that remain ingrained within our society.