Cover Image: Queen of the Conquered

Queen of the Conquered

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Member Reviews

The first novel in Callender's Islands of Blood and Storm series.
This is a strong start to a new series. The characters are very well-realized on the page, the writing is very well-constructed, the descriptions are evocative. The plot is brutal, gripping, and well told.
Looking forward to reading the next book in the series. Recommended.
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Sigourney is a member of the kongelig, elite governors of a colonised island chain called Hans Lollik. She lives a life of relative luxury, built on the backs of islander slave labour and defined by alliances and scheming with the rest of the kongelig as they vie to take over from the current regent and rule over the islands. Unlike the rest of the kongelig, though, Sigourney is herself an islander, the last member of a family who generations before had manage to scrape their way into freedom and go into business with a Fjern coloniser. Sigourney's status has never been accepted, and when the rest of her family were massacred under mysterious circumstances, she pledged herself to exact revenge and take her place at the head of the islands herself. She's helped along her way by her magical "kraft" (a set of innate abilities which the kongelig are allowed to have, and which islanders are usually executed for displaying), which lets her read the thoughts and access the memories of people around her, letting her see exactly what both the Fjern and her own people think of her.

Make no mistake here: Sigourney is a really challenging protagonist to follow around. She's an unrepentant slave owner, convinced of her own righteousness and her entitlement to use the people around her to get what she wants: a goal which she assumes she is the only one amongst the islanders qualified to achieve. While there's a strain of pity involved in following such an isolated protagonist, the narrative never lets us forget that she has internalised a great deal of the ethics of the elites around her, and it's particularly obvious in her interactions with Mareike, the woman who raised her after her family were killed, and with Loren, the mixed race half-brother of Signorney's Fjern husband, who insinuates himself by her side despite originally being sent to kill her. Because she can read memories, and the text often introduces her discoveries in an almost impassive, omniscient third-person style, it's easy to feel, like Sigourney herself, that she has all of the answers to the political questions surrounding her. But as she attempts to make her move against the regent while the rest of the kongelig are being murdered around her, Sigourney's blind spots and prejudices become clear, and the ending offers a really satisfying resolution to the ethical questions surrounding Sigourney. Not all readers will find following a morally questionable character like Sigourney a pleasant or worthwhile experience, but I really appreciated Queen of the Conquered for what it brought to the table: a fantasy which calls into question tropes around chosen ones and princesses who suddenly discover their righteous moral compass, set against an exploration of colonial power structures and the damage they do to those living under them. Well worth a look.
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This dark, brutal fantasy explores the pains of colonialism through a deeply flawed protagonist, caught between the aristocracy she is permitted to be a part of and the colonized people she is related to. Caught in this liminal space, Sigourney Rose's identity is largely based on self-hatred, feelings she has adopted from those around her: the nobles, who hate her because of the color of her skin, and the islanders, who hate her because they feel she has abandoned them and will do nothing to help them. With her ability to read minds (and, on occasion, exert actual mind control), Sigourney is strong--but also very out of her depth, even with her skills and cunning, when she is surrounded by proverbial vipers...who believe that she, herself, is a snake in the grass, out to overthrow them all. In other words, she is imperfect, but she is largely a product of the imperfect (VERY imperfect) society she lives in, and her conflicted sense of morals makes her point of view particularly compelling, even if she is not in the least likable. 

This is not a light read, beautiful though the cover may be. It does not pull any punches. Characters make awful decisions. There is violence and slavery and a whole lot of death. Torture and injustice abound, perpetrated by characters who largely believe themselves justified, and still permitted by those who object, out of fear of retribution. But the brutality is artful in its own way; Sigourney's oft-detached tone in her narration lets the story unfold so that the horrors appear even more starkly, without emotion coloring their intensity. It is a scathing criticism of the colonial machine that perpetuates racism and inequality, told through a fantasy lens that further heightens the stakes and intrigue.

I truly loved this book--the only reason I am docking a star is for the ending, which was incredibly abrupt and inconclusive. It felt like it cut the story off right before the big payoff moment, which is painful as a reader. Fortunately, the sequel is already available, so readers can jump back in and continue the story immediately. But taken on its own, the so-called "conclusion" of this tale is more like a big reveal, a whirlwind of action, and then no time to really see the fallout of those actions. 

(As a final note, I can't believe this book is by Kacen Callender, the same author of the queer contemporary Felix Ever After--which, by the way, was one of my favorites of 2020. The two are so different in genre, subject matter, tone, and age range, it's hard to believe the same person was able to execute both of them so well! Huge props to Kacen--they're doing a great job and are quickly becoming a favorite author of mine.)
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Where do I even begin with this book?! It frustrated me! Made me cry! Made me angry! However, it was beautifully written! I thoroughly enjoyed the writing of this book and the dynamics of the characters. The magic system was intriguing. The amount of death and schemes in this book was insane. I enjoyed every inch of it, so much so that I need to get a physical copy to re-read. I'm still simmering on my thoughts.
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Actual rating: 3.5 rounded up
Enjoyment: 3.5/5
Execution: 3.5/5

A brutal tale of revenge with lush world building and fierce secrets. 

Sigourney Rose is not a likeable protagonist, but she is fierce and flawed. She survives a brutal massacre on her family as a young child and vows to take revenge by seizing control of the islands. The premise promises intense action and a thrilling plot, but the pacing is hindered by numerous flashbacks and moments of introspection that make the book drag on. For example, Sigourney will be walking through a hallway when she spots something that makes her think of something and a multipage flashback will ensue before she continues walking. It takes an extremely long time for the plot to actually pick up, but when it does, it is terrifying.
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I've read this book two times now and it's so interesting. Fascinating, nuanced depiction of a slave-owning society and what it takes to topple insidious roots (sometimes the rescuer is also not that great!).
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Queen of the Conquered has so many layers – it may be the deepest book I have read this year. To be clear, the main theme of this book is Power: who has it, how they got it; who wants it, how they plan to get it; how it affects people (both the powerful and the powerless). To me, reading the book through this lens helped keep things in perspective.

The fact that the backdrop of the book is colonization and the enslaving of a group of people because of the color of their skin makes this story not only incredibly relevant but also a necessary addition to the SFF portfolio. Many SFF authors include slaves in their stories, but very few of them attack it head on the way Queen of the Conquered does. As a reader, I found the resemblance of colonization in this book to what has been experienced in our real-life world to be quite appropriate. It feels almost like an extension of what we have seen throughout history. As uncomfortable a topic as that is, it is also a theme that I think should be explored more often.

Sigourney is a really interesting MC, and the author does an amazing job of writing her. She comes from a noble family that was wiped out due to fear of their rise in power. Sigourney is hated for the color of her skin and herself feared on account of her “kraft”. From the first scene to the last (literally), the reader is exposed to the angst she endures every day, being at a seat of power in the social order she hates and relegated to following the rules that caste system has created while at the same time scheming to overthrow it. The slaves see her as a traitor, and the other members of the nobility hate her for the color of her skin. She is loved by no one.

Another aspect of Sigourney that makes her a great is MC is how the other characters are portrayed through the lens of her “kraft”. Because she can enter the minds of others, Sigourney spends much of this story in that space reading memories, learning secrets, and hearing their thoughts. This is not only extremely important to the way Sigourney interacts with others, but also with how others interact with the reader. The setting, plot, characters… everything is conveyed to the reader through Sigourney’s perspective, and much of this comes directly from the minds of the other characters as seen by Sigourney. This creates layers on layers of intrigue, and it always left me wondering what I was going to be exposed to next.

It is important to mention that Sigourney is not the only character in the book that uses “kraft”, and not everyone has the exact same power. Since the story is told from Sigourney’s perspective, the reader experiences her “kraft” for much of the story, but the others who use it are important, as well. 

The ending of this book wowed me, mostly because I did not see it coming. I should have, and I am actually really embarrassed that I did not. But to me that is part of the genius of this book. Without giving too much away, it is written in such a way that reflects the theme of the book.

In my opinion, there is one major flaw in this story: repetition. Sometimes it repeats a certain memory or a retelling of a character’s storyline, but there are several instances where things are described in detail more than once. I have not decided whether this is a purposeful plot device (ie – because Sigourney is entering the minds of others, she is seeing these memories and thoughts more than once herself, and that is being relayed to the reader), or if this is just the author trying to tell the reader this is important information and repeating it as a reminder. Or both. Either way, I could have done without it, as it would always take me out of the story; a few times I stopped and went back a few pages to see if I was accidentally rereading a chapter. It is a not a huge detriment to the overall quality of the book, but it is noticeable at times.

Overall, I liked Queen of the Conquered very much. Its theme of power, and the way it takes on slavery and colonization (even though in a fantasy setting, it closely resembles our own colonization) is significant. I recommend this book for all fantasy readers, and especially for those looking for something that includes a narrative with a message.
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I was immediately drawn to this book by the beautiful cover and loved the originality of the book.

The story begins with a heartbreaking scene of our main character cowering in her bedroom while she watches her entire family slaughtered by white colonists. The next chapter is many years later and she is now the leader of her house through inheritance but it is not all joy and rainbows. She is highly discriminated by everyone around her, even her own people who believe she is the symbol of betrayal. Now that we have a small idea of the plot, let's go into that magic system the synopsis promised which made the depth of this book much deeper and interesting. Our main character can READ THOUGHTS and MANIPULATE OTHERS to get them to do whatever she wants. Have an enemy kill themselves? absolutely. Is this groundbreaking and original? absolutely not but the way the author interwove it into the story and plot was a genius maneuver.

This is also a solidly diverse book offering a beautiful approach to conceptualizing racism and classism. There was a lot that I loved about this story and I do think it is worth picking up, even if all of the elements didn't quite come together as cohesively as I would have liked, I came into this novel expecting a hard-hitting dark fantasy book that mixed history with the secrets Caribbean culture in a beautiful way and that's exactly what I got.
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The sentence structure just threw me, the magic system isn't explained, there was a complete lack of world building and I was meh toward the main character. There just wasn't any buy-in.

I really wanted to love it and was really excited for it. This was really big disappointment
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Queen of the Conquered is a fearless new addition to the SFF world, tackling issues such as salvery, colonialism, and the structures that perpetuate bigotry from within. Kacen Callender, formerly known as and 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.
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