Kacen Callender tackles this question in Queen of the Conquered, a violent fantasy novel filled with deeply traumatized individuals and the barbarities of colonization. After a night of violence leaves Sigourney Rose the sole inheritor of her family’s wealth, she vows to use her affluence and her magical abilities (kraft) to claim her place as ruler of the islands. To make matters more interesting, the king of the islands has no successor, and will choose someone from the royal families to succeed him. In a calculated attempt to win his favor, Sigourney schemes her way onto the royal island. But there are other mysterious forces vying for control, and she must uncover them before they destroy her, too.
Against the lush background of Hans Lollik’s sprawling plantations and cerulean waters, enslaved islanders rise up against their rulers to dismantle the entire system—plantations burn, royals are murdered in their sleep, and at the center of it all is Sigourney and her wavering morals. Readers learn early on what she is capable of doing for power, and it only gets worse from there. While some characters want to abolish the royal throne, Sigourney wants to be crowned on it; even if it is built with the bones of her people. She commits countless instances of emotional, and physical/sexual violence against her own people (adults and children), yet in the same breath laments how much they hate her.
Queen of the Conquered may be a slave fantasy novel, but it avoids many of the typical pitfalls of the subgenre. Not only does Callender focus on a slave trade outside the United States (this trade was perpetrated by the Danish and Norwegian kingdoms in the West Indies, and the author was born on St. Thomas), but they center the story around slave rebellions that are often written out of colonizing countries’ textbooks. So, if you haven’t yet heard of Breffu’s rebellion, among others, then you’d better be ready for a lesson.
Callender creates a decisive portrayal of slavery, from religious persecution to the economic necessity for black overseers to instill order. Even though they utilize some familiar tropes of slave fantasy, they always add nuance to their characters—even for those who appear to be Uncle Toms, Mammies, and other uncomfortable stereotypes found in slave literature. While each character has personalities and desires beyond the plantation, not all of them can be heroes. Some just want to survive another day, and Callender does not villainize them for that desire. But even those who do not directly fight for their freedom resist bondage in meaningful ways. I especially enjoyed the portrayal of Marieke, Sigourney’s personal slave. Marieke is not a fighter, but a brave, older woman whose sparing but morally salient questions pressure Sigourney to acknowledge her role in slavery. However, even the obedient slaves are subjected to violence.
The shocking violence is absolutely necessary, as I cannot imagine a novel about slavery could be accurate without including violence. While Callender (sometimes) spares us gory details, the acts of racialized and gender-based violence are still brutal. Hangings, rape-murders, and other forms of torture are common, but not just perpetuated by the white Fjern. Violence surrounds magic, too—with its origins unclear but seemingly distributed equally between the white slave-owners and black slaves, kraft is nonetheless legally reserved for the Fjern who rule over black slaves. Though kraft is never explained thoroughly, I enjoyed the slow-burning reveal of its magical capabilities, especially during the slow paced middle section of the novel. Considering its imaginative beginning, the novel’s middle lingered far too long on palace intrigue, which seemed rather unimportant considering the violent slave uprisings that are still occurring across the islands. Readers are surely expecting Sigourney to focus on destroying the royal families, rather than acquiescing to their customs. Her seemingly odd character change solidifies Sigourney as a flawed and unheroic protagonist. In between high-stakes assassination attempts and aggressive law and order counter measures, readers will eventually realize that Sigourney does not use her kraft proportionately. Rather than using her kraft to destroy slave-owning Fjern, or to liberate her people, she uses it primarily against other Black individuals. When those close to her question her motives and feelings surrounding the islanders, she avoids them and defends her actions In fact, her conflicted feelings about matters of violence against islanders never last longer than a brief conversation. This is true even when Løren, a rebellious islander and abolitionist, gains access to her inner circle.
Løren is the highlight of the novel, as he shows Callender’s ability to bring in theories of the classroom and real historical context into. Although both characters are mixed-race, they have very different upbringings—Løren has been a slave most of his life, and after a failed runaway attempt, can only dream of freedom for himself and the islanders. Because he understands Sigourney’s complex racial history and also possesses kraft, Sigourney is unable to control him. He resists each of Sigourney’s attempts to excuse her actions, too. In fact, he directly criticizes her motives for taking the throne. He forces her to confront her own complicity. Thus, the only similarities between them are their methods—by any means necessary, no matter who stands in the way. This is the bleeding heart of Callender’s novel—revealing how people benefit from power and privilege. This emphasis wanes in the second half of the novel, however.
Perhaps it was my own bias, wanting to know what the islanders were burning next, but I found myself slogging through the second half of the novel because it turned so much of its focus towards Sigourney and the royals. Despite being marketed as a novel about revenge against the elite class, I frankly did not give a shit about the royal drama once I got there—at that point, I wanted to know what the islanders were up to, as they were far more interesting and better developed than most of the royal characters. Furthermore, Sigourney is not the same revenge-seeking tyrant in the second half. Her “by any means necessary” tactics transform into an ugly compromises between her and the remaining royals. At one moment, when it appears that she has the perfect opportunity to win the throne, she hesitates, because she has become strangely comfortable among those same oppressors who killed her family and constantly degrade her humanity.
And that is the uncomfortable truth Callender reveals—despite her utter disdain for the murderous, royal Fjern, Sigourney is just like them at the end of the day.
Although I am always cautious about declaring women in novels (especially women of color) “unlikeable”, as they are so often depicted unfavorably, it seems that Callender never aimed to make Sigourney a hero. They create a character who is selective in her empathy, despite positioning herself as someone who champions the rights of the oppressed, and directly question her actions through moral surrogates like Marieke and Løren.
I do not have any particularly strong feelings about the prose. That is a good thing. Callender does not waste pages trying to describe the intricacies of palace dresses, or the beauty of a Caribbean sunset in fifty different ways (though books with this poetic flair have their merits). Instead, they are focused on the meaning behind each interaction. Thus, the prose is good because it is understandable. Short, vivid sentences and tight action sequences help push along the 401-page novel in a comprehensive and comprehensible way. While I would have liked to learn more about islander culture, I applaud Callender’s ability to focus on the important realities of slavery. Even as a descendant of slaves, and someone who considers themselves well-read on the horrors of the trade, I still find myself learning plenty from Callender’s game-changing work.
Though it may be difficult to summarize such a powerful body of work, I can best sum up Queen of the Conquered as a complex thesis of radical liberation and womanist/feminist theory thinly veiled as a high fantasy novel. This novel deserves a full academic analysis, and should be required reading in any course that focuses on justice and the realities of chattel slavery. This may draw some readers in and push away others, but the power of this book should be acknowledged and celebrated.
Queen of the Conquered is not a fantasy book for those who want heroic, selfless characters—this is an unflinching account of slavery, colonization, and all those who are complicit in its system.