Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was not an easy book to read. That's the first thing to say about it. It's very grimdark, not only in terms of the plot and characters--there's definitely no happy ending in this one, the protagonist almost gets killed several times, and even in the final pages we have no idea if she's going to live or die--but in terms of the themes. This book pulls no punches: the terrible history and legacy of white supremacy is thoroughly explored, not only in how it twists the conquerer, but how it damages the conquered.
Sigourney Rose lives on the island of Lund Helle, one of a group of islands conquered centuries ago by the pale-skinned Fjern, who then enslave the native population. She is only "free" (relatively so) because of an ancestor who saved and purchased his freedom, and the ancestor's master's wife who insisted her husband honor the deal and grant the newly freed slave his own island. But the "kongelig," the ruling families, have always resented the Roses because they dared to consider themselves equal to their oppressors, and in the book's prologue, Sigourney's entire family is murdered because of it. She is rescued and fostered by a kongelig on a neighboring island, and spends several years on the mainland, until she masters her "kraft" (her magical power, although in this universe most "krafts" seem to be variations of what are essentially psi powers). Then she returns, bent on carrying out her revenge, murdering those who killed her family, and freeing her people.
Of course, this does not go as planned, and in the process the entire rotten heart of the system is laid bare. As Audre Lorde so eloquently stated, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house," which could be used as the subtitle of this book. In trying to gain the regency of the islands and carry out her revenge, Sigourney moves from oppressed to oppressor, from rebel to collaborator. She marries the son of one of the ruling families to gain power, and watches as the kongelig are cut down one by one. The back half of this book is a murder mystery and an interesting twist on the "white savior" trope, as (view spoiler)[ the murderers are revealed to be the slaves themselves, working to overthrow their masters. This is deftly woven in, as Sigourney is shown as having been used as a pawn and a distraction, to herself, the rest of the kongelig, and ultimately the reader: her people are freeing themselves without needing help from anyone else. (hide spoiler)]
There's a delicate, risky highwire act to having Sigourney as the central character, because she is not a good person by any stretch of the imagination. Of course, her entire life and worldview has been twisted by the system she has been born into, but there's something else I don't think anyone has commented on: her use of her "kraft" is simply horrifying. She is a telepath, and she invades people's minds and controls them without thinking twice about it. There is no discussion or even acknowledgment of the ethics of this. It illustrates the central truth of her character: to kill monsters, she must become one.
There are many layers to this book, and just as many trigger warnings needed. It's not for the fainthearted, I can tell you that, or those who can't face the truth of what white supremacy and slavery is. I'm not sure I'm glad this book exists, but there's no denying the need for it.
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