2019’s Queen of the Conquered is the first volume in Kacen Callender’s Islands of Blood and Storm series.
Centuries ago the pale-skinned Fjern descended on the islands to plunder and rule. Those of the dark-skinned Islanders who resisted were killed. The survivors became slaves. The islander language was forbidden, islander culture suppressed, the islands themselves renamed in the language of the invaders.
The population of the islands has fallen by half since the invasion. Every slave who demonstrates even a hint of kraft (magic) ability is killed on the spot. Every uprising is brutally crushed. Liberation seems impossible.
Sigourney Rose is an anomaly, a dark-skinned person who nevertheless enjoys lofty social status and power. She lives as one of the Fjern but she identifies with the slaves. She is determined to overthrow the Fjern.
Sigourney Rose is the last surviving member of her family. Her mother and siblings, along with everyone else unlucky enough to be in the Rose home when assassins attacked, were killed. Why? The Rose family was wealthy, powerful, and dark-skinned, which the kongelig, the ruling Fjern oligarchy, found intolerable.
Sigourney fled overseas with a guardian, returning years later as Sigourney Lund, the sole heir (presumably illegitimate) of landowner Bernhand Lund. Childless Bernhand died, leaving his lands and wealth to Sigourney. Now the Elskerinde Sigourney Lund, she plays much the same game her mother did: she’s useful to the Fjern great families, who grudgingly tolerate her. She’s useful because she is willing to oppress her own people, using the same brutal methods as the Fjern.
Sigourney has a talent: kraft, the ability to read and alter minds. For years she has been spying on those around her, nudging their thoughts in useful directions. She used psychic manipulation to convince the matriarch Freja Jannik to agree to a marriage between Sigourney and Freja’s son Askel Jannik. The marriage has given Sigourney the status she needs to implement the last step in her plan.
Regent Konge Valdemar has no child to inherit his position. He can, however, appoint a successor. The great kongelig families will meet in conclave and agree on candidate; the regent is expected to accept their choice. Sigourney means to become that candidate and thus the eventual regent. Once she gains power, then the people who murdered her family (the entire kongelig class) will pay.
Of course, every kongelig in the islands wants the position for themselves or their faction. None of them would willingly accept a dark-skinned regent. The kongelig are ruthless and casually homicidal. Their legal system serves mainly to legalize kongelig whim. Sigourney is playing a dangerous game.
But when the conclave assembles and the murders begin, Sigourney is not one of the victims. That’s more than a little surprising. What’s even more surprising is that Sigourney is not the killer. Sigourney has no idea who the killer might be. Her ability to read minds seems to have failed her. As the number of potential victims dwindles, it can only be a matter of time before Sigourney too falls victim to the faceless killer.…
Sigourney has money, power, intelligence, and kraft. Her greatest strength, however, might be her remarkable capacity for self-justification. She effortlessly convinces herself that her long-term goals (revenge! freedom! revenge!) justify short-term atrocities. It’s just too bad that the law requires her to kill others with kraft talents, but that’s what she has to do if she’s to become the savior of her people.
Mystery readers will recognize the story: assemble a bunch of nasty folks in one location and watch them die, one by one. The killer may be one of them … but who?
The novel is written from Sigourney’s POV. It’s a first-person narrative, which means that the reader knows only what Sigourney knows. Her telepathy has failed her. Some mysteries telegraph the culprit all too soon in the story; this mystery keeps readers puzzled for an enjoyably long time.
It’s not a cozy mystery. There’s no sugar-coating of the miseries of slavery here. It’s not a tale featuring kind masters and mistresses and the slaves who love them. This book isn’t a comfort read, but it’s well told and absorbing. I will look for the rest of the books in the series when they appear.