Book Review: Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender

This post is part of the Reading Writers of Color 2021 challenge hosted by Lonely Cryptid Media’s staff writer and editor, Dan Michael Fielding.

Queen of the Conquered is Kacen Callender‘s first foray into adult fiction, and a truly excellent debut. Already an award-winning middle grade and young adult author, Callender brings their expert knowledge of prose and craft to each page of Queen.

In a world very similar to our own, colonization by the Fjern has resulted in the enslavement of the Hans Lollik islanders. The main difference between this world and ours is that power comes in two forms: the first, the power of kings and lords, and those that resist them, and the second the power of the kraft to control minds and bodies, compel truth, or even speak to the dead.

In the midst of this power struggle is Sigourney Rose, the sole survivor of a massacre that wiped out her family–the only ruling family composed of islanders rather than the northern Fjern. Raised by her mother’s slave, Marieke, and taught to face her destiny, Sigourney’s only goal now is revenge on those who brought ruin upon her family. Along the way she convinces herself that by becoming ruler of these islands she can in turn free her people from servitude.

The cover of Queen of the Conquered shows a woman's face in profile. She is dark skinned and wearing a white head wrap. A black snake coils over her face, covering her eyes. The subtitle says "They will know her vengeance."

Sigourney has a powerful kraft which allows her to enter the minds of others. This kraft is a double-edge sword. It gives her immense power over others, even granting her the ability to implant thoughts in them and control their movements. Yet, it also exposes her to the intense hatred those around her feel towards her, and it is a power that can be, and often is, bested.

She finds this power tested time and time again upon her arrive at the King’s court during the storm-season, when all the ruling families gather to discuss how they will continue to exact control over the islands and, most importantly, who will succeed the King when he steps down from rule. Although always a time of political turmoil and violence, this storm-season is more terrible than any before. Members of the ruling families are picked off one by one, the King himself is more puppet than man, and Sigourney finds herself at the center of a game of politics she could not possibly be prepared to win.

In the end Sigourney, and the reader, must confront big questions about revolution and political struggle. Can true change emerge from working within the very system that causes the oppression? What lies are we willing to tell ourselves in order to imagine we are the hero? How is privilege striated and complex rather than static and fixed? And what does power mean without the capability to use it well?

As a novel Queen crosses several genre boundaries. It is a fantasy where magic makes itself known, but that same magic can be stopped by the slash of a blade or a push from a cliff face. Although it is fiction, its inspiration is deeply rooted in the real-world history of slavery on the Caribbean isles and does not shy away from showing the horrors this institution of slavery can and did bring. But it is also a book about political intrigue and even a murder mystery at times. The mystery and supernatural aspects add to the tension Sigourney feels as her life is threatened time and time again, and we are left wondering the same thing Sigourney wonders: Will she live to see her plans come to fruition? And does she even deserve to survive?

One warning before you begin: Prepare yourself for a lot of bloodshed. I don’t usually read books with political intrigue and murder at their core, and the amount of killing surprised me at first and was a little off-putting. I took a week off from the book and returned more prepared, and I’m glad that I stuck it out and finished the novel, both for the wild ride that Sigourney experiences and for the ending which reveals the true depths of the mystery.

I highly recommend you pick up Queen and its sequel King of the Rising. Callender deals with the reality of slavery, complicity, and rebellion with a deft hand, and I’m eager to see more of their work.

What did you read for this month’s challenge? Did your book surprise you or intrigue you? Was it just good-old-fashioned comfort food? Feel free to share your reading experiences below–I’d love to hear them!

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender

  1. I just finished my March book for this challenge, „David Mogo, Godhunter“. It‘s a UF set in Nigeria, promoted as godpunk. Very good. Now I just started Dawn by Octavia Butler for April. I am a little behind…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Queen of the Conquered is SOOOO good–and the sequel, King of the Rising, came out last December! 🙂

    For April I ended up reading Ghost Squad by Claribel Ortega and I really enjoyed it. One of my favorite things lately is awesome grandmothers in middle-grade fiction, and Ortega had two fantastic grandmothers in this one. I love the interplay between the older women and the young main characters.

    Liked by 1 person

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