Sigourney Rose has a plan, one she has been honing for years. When she was a child, the Roses held dominion over an island in the kingdom of Hans Lollik. They were the only Black islander family ever to rise above slavery to the ranks of the kongelig, or nobility. Centuries before, the Fjern left their northern kingdom and conquered the southern islands, enslaving the dark skinned islanders and forcing them to work on plantations and as guards. After Sigourney’s family are slaughtered by Fjern kongelig, she and a slave woman, Marieke, escape the islands. As they travel the world, Sigourney crafts her plan to return to Hans Lollik and take the throne. The best way to save her people is to remove the Fjern from power and rule them herself, or so she believes.
Once back on the islands, Sigourney uses her kraft, or magic, to read people’s minds and control their bodies. She manipulates and schemes her way to a seat at the king’s exclusive table, but her goal remains firmly out of reach. The Fjern kongelig will never accept a Black islander as an equal and would rather see her dead than form an alliance. The islanders dislike her just as much because she refuses to free her people; to them she’s nothing more than a traitor, an islander by skin color only. On top of all this, Konge Valdemar is supposed to choose his replacement amongst the kongelig, but something is off. The king isn’t acting like himself, someone is murdering the kongelig, and a slave boy named Løren holds secrets that threaten the islands’ future. To salvage her plan, Sigourney must risk everything, including her life.
The real world history of European colonization and African enslavement is far more complex than what Americans learn in high school history class. While not the most profligate of the slave traders, the kingdoms of Denmark and Norway still managed to profit off enslaved Africans and Caribbean Indigenous people. From the 17th through 19th centuries, the Dano-Norweigians transported approximately 120,000 Africans to the Danish West Indies (comprised of the Caribbean islands Saint Croix, Saint John/St. Jan, Saint Thomas, and Water Island). In the late 1700s, they were shipping nearly 3,000 enslaved Africans every year. As the colonizers invaded island after island, they decimated the local Taíno and Carib populations through execution, exploitation, enslavement, and disease.
Queen of the Conquered isn’t a direct retelling of Dano-Norwegian violence in the Danish West Indies, although it is heavily influenced by it; for example, the kingdom of Hans Lollik is named after two islands in the US Virgin Islands, the country where author Kacen Callender was born. They take the experiences of Indigenous Carbbean islanders and enslaved Africans and merge them together, creating the Black islanders (we never learn their pre-colonial name) who were colonized and then enslaved on sugar plantations by the white Fjern (Danish for “remote” or “distant”). Callender’s fantasy world is unique but familiar, with kingdoms to the north, west, and east, each with varying degrees of slavery, abolition, and culpability.
We often wonder why enslaved Africans stayed on plantations and didn’t rebel, but this is a false question. They did resist—often and with great violence. We don’t hear about these events because the colonizers don’t want us to. In the US Virgin Islands, there were countless and constant slave rebellions, not to mention the two big ones—St. Jan in 1733 and St. Croix in 1848. Callender takes this island history and expands it. Again, the historical events don’t line up exactly with the fictional ones, but there is enough of the real world to ground the fantasy.
Too often, stories about racial violence and slavery break people into white and POC, colonizer and colonized. With Sigourney and Løren, Callender explores the in between. Sigourney is both colonized and colonizer. She may have Fjern blood in her, but her Blackness overrules her whiteness. To the Fjern, she will always be an islander, and to the islanders she cannot be trusted because she’s too much a Fjern. Sigourney believes she can be both, but finds herself disregarding her Blackness and relying too much on the privilege afforded to her whiteness. Even her plan to take back Hans Lollik is rooted in white colonial power structures. She wants to exact vengeance for her family’s murder and take the throne, not free her people from slavery. The slaves who surround her know this, even though some choose to ignore it or hope she will eventually see the light. Sigourney sees herself as a hero, but her people want a freedom fighter. Løren is also biracial, but he grew up a slave. He understands the realities of his world in ways Sigourney never could.
As much as Sigourney considers herself a keen strategist, she is in truth frustratingly passive. She arrives in Hans Lollik with drive and passion but none of it extends beyond her own person. Marieke and Løren try to get her to see the bigger picture, but in this she takes after the Fjern. She centers herself regardless of whose story is being told and whose life is at stake. Everything revolves around her. She doesn’t just want the throne, she deserves it for no other reason than she believes she does.
Sigourney rarely acts. Even when confronted with an intriguing mystery—Is the king dead or a puppet or a ghost or something else? Who is killing off the kongelig?—she doesn’t investigate, not really. Instead she ponders the question then sets it aside to continue her increasingly untenable plan. Although the idea works thematically, it makes for an occasionally challenging read. As a reader, I want to delve into the mysteries, not hang around their edges. The result is teasing a mystery then denying the reader the opportunity to solve it. I guess it’s a “your mileage may vary” scenario, but for me it did not work. Fortunately, that was the only element I struggled with. Everything else was nothing short of remarkable.
Known for their young adult and middle grade fiction, Queen of the Conquered is Kacen Callender’s first foray into adult fantasy and I hope to the gods it’s not their last. I don’t think I’ll ever stop thinking about Sigourney and the islanders. I want to see this novel on high school and college curriculum. I want it on book club lists and Twitter live tweet threads. I want a 10-episode miniseries on a prestige streaming site.
My ancestors were enslaved on plantations in Virginia and Florida rather than the US Virgin Islands, but Callender and I are still connected by the bonds of the Black diaspora. This is not my story, and yet it is. And it absolutely must be read.
Queen of the Conquered is available from Orbit Books.
Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.