The Queen of Blood


Kacen Callender


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

February 28, 2021

his is a grim story. I read a paperback, physical copy of Queen of the Conquered, but if I had the digital version, and I did a word search on "hate" or "hatred", I bet I would find at least 300 instances of those two words in this novel. Plus a whole lot of instances of the words fear, anger and revenge. Pain, suffering, anguish? Yup, plenty of those words too. Joy, mercy, kindness? I would be surprised if those words appear anywhere at all.

Queen of the Conquered won the 2020 World Fantasy Award for best novel. I give the book 5 stars for world building, 4 stars for characters (even though none of the main characters are likable, at least they are interesting), and 1 star for plot. I will explain the dismal plot rating below in a spoiler section. The ending isn't quite as bad as "it was all a dream!", but it isn't that far off from it. Up until the Great Reveal at the end of the book that explains the central question of who was killing the kongelig, I was entertained by the story. But I hate (there's that word again!) finding out at the end of the book that characters did incredibly senseless things just to make the plot work.

Despite the dark nature of the story, I read through the 353 pages quickly. Callender constructs an interesting world - an archipelago that is clearly modeled after the Caribbean of our own world, which has been conquered and enslaved by a ruthless group of colonizers called the Fjern. The native islanders are forced to work on plantations, growing tobacco and sugar cane for their vicious masters. The Fjern are brutal and murderous; the enslaved population suffers horribly - rapes, tortures, disfigurement and executions. Any islander that is suspected of having kraft is summarily executed.

Kraft is a magical mental power that both the Fjern and the natives sometimes possess. Kraft will occasionally manifest when a child reaches puberty. Often, the talent is not too powerful or useful, but in some souls, kraft can be used as a powerful weapon

Sigourney Rose was just five years old when a raiding party burst into her family home, slaughtering her entire family with machetes. A desperate servant helps Rose escape, and for years it is assumed that Rose has perished along with every member of her family. But Rose survived and burns for revenge.

Sigourney has a unique and powerful kraft - she can read the thoughts of those around her. Also, she can plant her ideas into the brains of others, and they will believe the ideas are their own. In extreme cases, Sigourney can even force another person to act as she commands. Now grown to adulthood, Sigourney is the ruler of Lund Helle. Sigourney used her kraft to have the aging ruler of Lund Helle declared her as his heir, even though she is a native islander. After his death, Sigourney is now one of the ruling kongelig; she plans to get herself declared the Queen of the archipelago, and then she will free all of the islanders. The other islanders all hate her, because she is now one of the oppressive kongelig, and she enforces the Fjern's brutal rules, but Sigourney is only acting this way until she can have herself crowned as Queen, at which point the freed slaves will rejoice and love her. They can hate her now, but will thank her later. Or so Sigourney tells herself.

On the way back to her island, Sigourney and her guards are ambushed. An arrow to the throat kills Friedrich, the captain of her guard. Almost immediately, six of her guards are slain and a desperate battle ensues. Sigourney uses her kraft to take over the body of one her adversaries, and commands him to slay his fellow ambushers. One attacker nearly succeeds in knifing Sigourney, but the attackers are all killed except for one survivor. Sigourney tries to question this survivor, but strangely finds that her kraft cannot read his mind. Rather than executing him on the spot, Sigourney has him taken back to the plantation, where she will interrogate him further. Oddly, she finds all attempts to read his mind are blocked. Eventually, Sigourney learns the attacker's name is Løren. Since she cannot read his mind, and thus cannot trust him, she decides to make Løren the captain of her guard, in charge of her personal security!!

A summons arrives - Sigourney and all of the other kongelig are to travel to Hans Isllik Helle, where the King will declare which of them will be his heir. Once the kongelig arrive at the island, the murders begin - it is clear someone is killing off the competition, someone wishes to be the next King and so is ruthlessly killing the fellow kongelig. Being a native islander instead of a Fjern, Sigourney is naturally suspected of the being the killer, but it isn't her. Which of the ever dwindling cast of characters is the true killer? This question pulls the reader through the pages.

Because I read the book quickly, and was intrigued by the world building, and also interested to learn how the author resolved the central mystery of the novel, my initial rating for this book was five stars. But when the climax is reached, all of the mystery is explained in one long information dump. There is a saying that an author should "show, don't tell", meaning that a good writer won't explain to their audience how the plot unfurls, but will instead allow the reader to see for themselves how the plot resolves through the deeds and words of the characters. But Queen of the Conquered resorts to a multi-page explanation to explain the perplexing happenings that have haunted Sigourney. I thought it was a disappointing choice by the Callender. So I deducted one star, lowering my score to four.

I thought about the book after finishing it, and the more I thought about it, the less I liked it. It turns out that many events occur only because the author needs them to happen that way in order for the plot to advance, but if you actually think about what the characters are doing, their behavior makes no sense at all. So I deducted another star, lowering the score to three. Below, I will describe the plot twists that disappointed me the most, do not read the spoiler section if you intend to read this novel, as I will discuss the central mystery of the book.

!! *** Warning *** !! Massive Plot Spoilers below !!!

Malthe (a member of Sigourney's guard) and Marieke (the native woman who rescued and raised the 5 year old Sigourney) and Løren are conspirators in a plot kill all the kongelig - including Sigourney. But they know Sigourney can read minds. However, Løren has a kraft of his own, he can block someone from reading minds! If Løren can become captain of Sigourney's guards, then he can prevent her from reading the minds of Malthe and Marieke and uncovering their plot (never mind that Malthe and Marieke are already around Sigourney daily while Løren lives on another island, yet Sigourney hasn't read their minds yet.) Okay - the plan is to have Løren installed as captain of Sigourney's guards - what's the best way to implement that? The plan that the conspirators came up with: Løren will lead a band of assassins that make it seem like they are trying to kill Sigourney. The assault will fail, but Malthe will make sure his fellow guards don't kill Løren during the ambush, and then Sigourney is sure to make him captain, because they will kill Friedrich, the current captain. Wouldn't you chose an assailant who just tried to murder you to be responsible for your safety? Of course Sigourney will make Løren her new captain. Oh, and the fact that all of Løren's compatriots and half of Malthe's fellow guards have to perish in this attack, in order to make it look authentic - well, no one worries there. They are just fellow islanders and their lives apparently are worthless!! Here's the plan that the conspirators should have used: rather than shooting an arrow into Friedrich's throat, kill Sigourney instead. The whole point of the conspiracy is to kill all of the kongelig, including Sigourney, so why not just kill her there and then? kill her?

The central mystery is: which of the kongelig is killing all the others? It turns out that the killer it isn't one of the kongelig at all. There is a native islander named Agatha whose kraft is so incredibly powerful that she can fool people into seeing a different reality. The true king has been dead for weeks, his palace is a moldering wreck. When the kongelig meet the king in his glittering palace, it is all just an illusion projected by Agatha! The king himself is just an figment conjured up by Agatha. But this raised a troubling question for me - if Agatha is so powerful, why doesn't she just kill all of the kongelig when they assemble for their first meeting with the king? Agatha could easily fool them into seeing something that isn't true, she could, for example have all the kongelig walk off the edge of a cliff and plunge to their deaths. What is Agatha waiting for? Because this waiting has grievous consequences for her fellow islanders, and serves no purpose except to advance the author's plot.

The false king tells Sigourney to go to Ludjivik Helle and kill Gustav Ludjivik, which she does. But in revenge (or so the kongelig think), Erik Årud is murdered. Erik's outraged sister, Patrika Årud leads her army in an assault on Ludjivik Helle, where she swears to slaughter every single inhabitant of the island. Does Agatha do anything to stop her? An entire island of natives is about to be killed - Agatha's fellow people, yet she does nothing to stop Patrika. Why not?

In revenge for Patrika's assault on Ludjivik Helle, the cousins of Gustav Ludjivik attack Patrika's home island of Årud Helle and storm her home fortress. Battle ensues, Sigourney sees a horrific scene when doomed men fight ship to ship - when they fall into the water, they are torn apart by sharks. Note that the men fighting in these battles are native men trapped into serving in the kongelig armies. A wholesale slaughter of native islanders is ongoing, yet Agatha does nothing! This really appalled me - the natives are just as careless with the lives of the islanders as the brutal Fjern. How can any reader cheer for the natives when their actions cost so many lives, especially when Agatha could simply have ended it all.

During the ongoing murders of the kongelig, when Sigourney is accused of being the killer, she demands that Lothar Niklasson question her. Niklasson's kraft is that he can always tell when someone is telling a lie. Niklasson asks Sigourney if she committed any of the murders, and she truthfully says no. So why doesn't Lothar Niklasson question the rest of the kongelig? All of them know that they are innocent, and each should welcome the chance for Niklasson to prove it. Why don't the rest of the kongelig demand that Lothar Niklasson question them also? I thought that was strange.

Late in the novel, Løren decides to run away. But of course his absence means that Sigourney could now read the minds of Malthe and Marieke and learn of their conspiracy! Løren has betrayed his fellow plotters!

Sigourney sends Malthe to search for the escaped Løren and bring him back for execution. And Malthe does just that - he hunts Løren down, and brings his fellow conspirator back for execution. Why not let Løren escape? Why isn't Malthe afraid that Løren, facing certain death, might reveal the conspiracy in a desperate attempt to save his own neck?

Agatha uses her kraft to stab Sigourney in the guts. Marieke works tirelessly to nurse Sigourney back to health. Why? The whole point of their conspiracy is to kill Sigourney and all of the kongelig!

Much of this plot makes little sense when the reader stops to think about it. The fact that the King and his palace was just an illusion was a huge disappointment. To learn that Agatha could have acted at any time, yet never did, despite the horrific cost to her fellow islanders was a major flaw - the islanders are just as cruel and vicious as the Fjern.

This book already has a sequel, The King of the Rising, but I won't be reading it.