Rating: 5 out of 5
Kacen Callender’s Queen of the Conquered (Islands of Blood and Storm (1)) is a tornado of a novel: it touches down seemingly out of nowhere and whips your feelings into a frenzy. I’m still feeling a little shell-shocked from reading it.
Sigourney Rose is the sole survivor of the massacre of her family. Her mother was an Islander with dark skin; her father was white and the local equivalent of nobility. Sigourney was born with kraft: she can sense others’ thoughts, delve into their memories, and sometimes even control them with a thought. She has managed, through a whole lot of effort, to get herself made the heir to her cousin’s estate and title. She has arranged a marriage to Askel Jannik, heir to another house, while slowly killing off his mother to hurry the inheritance. Askel is in love with Beata, but feels duty-bound to commit to the marriage, no matter how much he hates Sigourney. They’re invited to spend the storm season on the central island with other nobles and their ruler, and she has long planned to take this opportunity to take revenge on the other nobles for her family’s death. The others hate and despise her for her dark skin–but so do her own slaves, because she came from them yet still keeps slaves. She may not hurt them for fun the way some of the other nobles do, but she has had them killed at times.
She’s determined to become the ruler of these islands, but is she doing it for her own ambition, or for her people? Those around her begin to suspect more and more that she’s doing it for her own selfish reasons, and that she won’t set the slaves free once she becomes ruler. Then the nobles begin to show up dead, and even with the advantage of her kraft she can’t figure out who’s doing the killing. Also, there’s something very wrong with the current ruler–her ability detects no life in him at all, leading her to think one of the other nobles is creating some sort of illusion.
I was absolutely crushed by this novel. It isn’t my usual read, in that it has a fairly sedate pace; I tend to go for higher-action more fast-paced fare, and in general I try to avoid “depressing” books because I read for escapism. But Book Twitter recommended this, and I’m so glad I listened. There is an absolutely unflinching look at slavery in here. Pretty much anything that could happen to slaves happens to or is remembered by someone in this book. Because of Sigourney’s unusual ability, we get snippets of memory and history and thought from all sorts of characters. In most hands this would be awkward, but in this book it felt utterly natural.
Sigourney is most definitely not built to be a “likable” character, but she’s engaging enough that it works. She takes one of her slaves to bed with her regularly, even though she knows he can’t refuse her without risking his life, making it rape. She’s exceedingly ambitious and very self-centered. Not in a bratty sort of way, but in terms of justifying to herself whatever it takes to achieve her goals. Still, she very much wishes her own people didn’t hate her. She wants to be a hero, but she lives in reality.
There’s a fascinating mystery at the heart of the book, as nobles continue to die one-by-one. Sigourney’s kraft isn’t infallible, and she’s been unable to determine who’s doing the killing. She’s sure she’s on the killer’s list, and she can’t even trust that her own slaves won’t necessarily betray her if they see the chance.
I really can’t recommend this book highly enough.