Kacen Callender didn’t write a historical fantasy novel. They didn’t write a slavery-centered novel for the sake of it. They wrote, in my humble opinion, a compelling, unprecedented tragic hero’s journey. If you’re going into this expecting a more generic fantasy that happens to take place in a slavery-centric world, then you’ll be discrediting your new favourite book.
The story follows Sigourney Rose, an islander who is born into a noble life. Sigourney, however, is an islander - a race of people who have been colonized by the Fjern. After surviving the massacre of her family, she is taking revenge not only on those directly responsible but all the Fjern in power. She finds the perfect opportunity when the King decides to choose a successor from amongst the noble families. What was expected as an adventure, ended up being a story shrouded in mystery and murder as the noble families are being killed off. Queen of the Conquered not only tackles race, oppression, and slavery but it also takes a different approach as it examines power, privilege, and perception that can only be told from Sigourney’s point-of-view.
As for the worldbuilding, I think this is the most familiar, yet still interesting element, where there exists kraft, a magical power that (despite what the Fjern propagate) any random individual can possess and come into at a young age. The range of powers were amazing and should definitely not be spoiled as they are key to how the mystery unfolds for the reader.
One thing I took from this book was what I considered to be a wonderfully-done deconstructed approach to the journey of a tragic hero. Sigourney is an obviously flawed protagonist. She is easily unlikeable and yet easy to sympathize with. We can see the reason behind her actions as someone plagued by the need to exact revenge but there are decisions that most of us would’ve expected to be made differently especially considering what most of us have become used to from a heroic main character. Her tragic flaw is displayed early into the book and consistently throughout (surely to the reader’s dismay). And I loved it! With the trend of unlikeable characters being welcomed more and more, here lies one that is not an antihero or a character awaiting their own 180 character arc. I see a tragic hero.
Sigourney represents a black experience that is more recognizable to more recent generations. As a race plagued, not only by racism but also by constant comparisons (sometimes through microaggressions) and how it dictates the ambitions of black people, it was a curious experience following a character that not only wanted to fight for herself and her people but also sought out the approval of her oppressors. It isn’t unheard of/rare/uncommon for many black people to imitate and emulate the tendencies and features of white people because of the lack of validation of black beauty. I bring this up because it’s a message that stood out to me clearly, and manifested itself as the tragic hero’s pride as she saw herself above her fellow islanders. Even if Sigourney never wished for their hair or skin, she envied the life and privileges they afforded even as someone who was, herself, privileged among the islanders.
The inclusion of a mixed slave, Loren, (mulatto as we’re taught in school) is used to show the true intersection of a slave and a Fjern in contrast to Sigourney was refreshing - if I can call it that - as the parallels showed privilege existing outside of colour in this setting.
Her need for power for revenge often acts as her own justification to use her authority in unsavoury ways. As I said, there’s some expectation most of us have these days of a protagonist and their arc throughout a story but Callender has done a great job of making Sigourney her own antagonist and sometimes an antagonist to us the reader.
Other aspects of the tragic hero that was perfectly crafted were the reversals of fate and the critical discoveries that happen at the end of the story. This is especially interesting to me as a lot of the discoveries throughout the story and perceptions that our MC thinks others have of her play unexpectedly huge part in emphasizing her flaw and all the ways they lead to her fall.
This actually brings me to the writing. Sigourney’s kraft is the ability to sink into other’s minds which allows her to read them and perform various types of manipulation. Given that we read in the first person (which was something to get used to as I’m more used to omniscient POV’s in fantasy) we get access to information about others through Sigourney’s power. I was pleasantly surprised at how well this was done and Callender’s prowess with their words made the transitions smooth, not-too-expository, and vivid to the reader. As for the characters, they’re all detailed and memorable given that we read them through interactions but also through their memories.
One downside for me was the repetitiveness of some of Sigourney’s sentiments. Although I do understand the importance of her, someone who should be a slave instead of being someone with unprecedented power, I did find constant references to her skin and the Fjern’s disgust for her race to get redundant. Also, the mentions of how much both Fjern and islanders hated her became a bit exasperating.
Overall, this was a new insert in the slavery-centric fantasy that does not ask us to sympathize with evil behaviour and evil people. It presents a story that feels realistic in spite of the magical elements. Kacen has prowess in their writing and a mind that gave us a new story and a new main character that we can follow into more books to come.
Thank you to Paola Crespo at Orbit Books for sending me an ARC of this wonderful, game-changing book.