After Sigourney Rose’s attempted coup and Løren’s slave rebellion, the islands of Hans Lollik are in turmoil. The Black islanders have taken control of several islands, but the Fjern have them blockaded from external resources and aid. Now imprisoned by her own people, Sigourney wants nothing more than to take freedom and power for herself.
But King of the Rising, the second book in the Islands of Blood and Storm duology, isn’t her story, although she does play a prominent role. Instead, we focus on Løren, the unprepared and too naive leader of the islanders who must find a way to turn a small uprising into a full-fledged revolution, and a successful one at that.
Free of their chains, the islanders start to use their kraft, the Fjern word for magical abilities, in novel ways. Løren’s kraft, which allows him to mirror other people’s kraft, is evolving with prolonged exposure to Sigourney’s own kraft. He uses this new power to guide his leadership, but it also makes it harder to spot when outside forces use his kraft against him. Chaos, infighting, betrayal, espionage, and selfishness hem him in on all sides. Just as many people want the rebellion to fail as to succeed, and there are islanders on both sides of that line. As their resources dwindle and their enemies close in, Løren and his war council will be forced to choose who lives and who dies. A rebellion may be built on hope, but it cannot be won until the systems of oppression are destroyed.
This book is going to be a tough one for some people. For one thing, it doesn’t follow the same protagonist as the first book, Sigourney. It centers instead on the man who was supposed to kill her, Løren, and his perspective of her and her actions is not all that kind. Sigourney was never the hero she believed herself to be, and neither, for that matter, is Løren. King of the Rising is also very heavy on description—Løren describing to the reader what he sees in other people’s memories or experiences through their kraft—and light on dialogue. The ending, while absolutely the right one for this story, will leave some readers feeling frustrated and unmoored. Western fiction readers are trained to expect a certain kind of ending from books like this, and Callender does an excellent job turning those expectations inside out.
Personally, I loved all of these aspects. They were the best choice, craft-wise, for this story. Westerners like to tell rose-colored revolution stories where despite hardships, the good guys always triumph over evil and hope is restored across the empire. But in the real world, there were countless slave rebellions over the centuries and across the New World colonies; the first one to succeed in freeing the enslaved and abolishing slavery was the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804. (Although success isn’t clear cut; the country was forced to pay the equivalent of $21 billion to France in “reparations” that took them 122 years to pay down and contributed to the country’s current struggles.) Most rebellions ended in the executions of the enslaved Africans who took up arms, as well as enslaved and free Black people who were unlucky enough to get caught up in the wave of white violence after the fact.
Yet while many enslaved Africans dreamed of escape and rising up, many also accepted their fate. Perhaps they had come to believe they really were less than human like white people said. Perhaps they believed they deserved enslavement, were worth nothing more than what little they had. Many were afraid. After all, they had seen what came from the doomed rebellions and runaways who were killed for their defiance. Better the devil you know, right? Coexisting alongside the fearful and the resentful were those who thought they could prove themselves to be human. The eloquent speakers put on display (or who put themselves on display) in an attempt to convince white people to grant them a modicum of freedom. Some merely wanted a better position for themselves while others thought any Black person could slide into the middle class with bootstrapping and hard work. Some who wanted to play by white rules in the hope they could carve out power in a white supremacist society rather than burn the whole system to the ground.
Holding all that in your head, it is easier to understand why Løren, Sigourney, and the rest of the fascinating cast of characters here make the choices they do, even when those choices cause direct and intentional harm to their own people. Oftentimes, they act in a way the reader doesn’t agree with and that subverts the traditional hero’s journey narrative.
Despite how the white majority often portrays us, Black people are not a monolith. Callender explores chattel slavery through the perspectives of the resigned, the resisting, the rebellious, the Black exceptionalists, those who revel in their Blackness and those who wield colorism like a blade, those who are willing to wait and go slow and those who are ready to fight to the death. Speculative fiction rarely gets into nuance this deep and multifaceted with regards to Black culture and history, so you can probably guess how much I relished this series.
With King of the Rising, Kacen Callender has once again demonstrated why they are one of the best writers in the business. From middle grade to young adult to adult, they are somehow able to take stories I’ve seen before and tell them in wholly original and emotionally devastating ways. The Islands of Blood and Storm duology isn’t an easy series to read, but it’s a powerful one. It’ll sweep you away if you let it. I’ll be thinking about Løren and Sigourney for a long, long time.
King of the Rising is available from Orbit.