#REVIEW: King of the Rising, by Kacen Callender

I was not a huge fan of the first volume of Kacen Callender’s Islands of Blood and Storm duology, Queen of the Conquered. Feel free to click through to the review, of course, but the short version is that I felt like the book was both too ambitious for its own good and a main character who was not only not especially likable to the reader but was also flatly detested by literally every single character in the book. It had potential, though, and I decided to keep an eye on Callender in the future although at the time I wasn’t committing to picking up the sequel to the book.

Well. Kacen Callender is from St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands, and I hadn’t read a book from there last year, so …

It took a while to get to it; in fact, when I picked it up yesterday it had been on my unread shelf since 2021, and had spent more time there than any other book on the shelf. I honestly just picked it up to get it out of the way, and for a brief moment I considered not actually reading it, since it’s not like the Read Around the World thing is something official any longer.


It’s a lot better.

King of the Rising begins exactly where Queen of the Conquered left off, at the beginning of a massive slave revolt on an archipelago colonized by the white-skinned Fjern, and if you want the historical equivalent you need nothing more than to recall that Callender is a St. Thomian, and St. Thomas was colonized by the Dutch. What makes this a fantasy novel and not just thinly-veiled historical fiction is the existence of Kraft, which is basically X-Men style magical powers that some of the characters possess. Kraft, if I’m being honest, is the weakest part of the book and in general its main role in the plot is to give the main character of this book and the main character of the last book a way to communicate with each other across long distances.

That switch in narrators is probably the singe change that that played the biggest role in my enjoying this book more than Queen. Sigourney was kind of rough as a narrator. She was very passive in a lot of ways and literally everyone hated her, and she just wasn’t a great choice as an MC. This book is told from the perspective of Løren Jannik, her half-brother, and while Sigourney still plays a pretty significant role in the story, Løren is a much more dynamic character than she was. He is still flawed, certainly; one of the major themes of the book is leadership during crisis, and the book isn’t interested in backing away from his failures as both a leader of the revolt and as a person in general. But the main thing is that he makes decisions during the book and while some of them are definitely bad decisions, at least he acts throughout the course of the book. Sigourney was just too passive, and pushing her offscreen or at least into the background made King of the Rising a superior read.

I probably should have put this first, but, like, you don’t need a trigger warning for this one, do you? Because this book is about a slave revolt against a colonial slave power, with everything that implies, and it can be a really fucking rough read. If you read Queen of the Conquered you should absolutely pick this up even if you didn’t particularly like it. If you did like Queen, I feel like you’ll really enjoy this one.

In which we emerge, blinking

Went outside and did a thing today— the Leeper Park Art Fair, held in scenic downtown South Bend, in a park that until a year or two ago was home to an inbred, angry, violent group of ducks– so angry, inbred and violent that the city had to step in to figure out how to deal with them. There was a massive kerfuffle, of the type that can only be found in small- and mid-sized towns, and some of the ducks were eventually euthanized, some taken elsewhere, and their pond was filled in, producing a much nicer public park that people can actually bike and walk through without fear of being attacked.

The fair was really nice, honestly– the temperature suddenly shot up by a good ten degrees on the (short) walk back to the car, but for the whole time we were walking around it was pleasant and breezy outside, and it’s always fun to look at art, even if in general everything was far outside of my price range. I’m not disputing the prices these folks were charging, mind you; this isn’t you shouldn’t be charging $250 for this hand-turned wooden vase, it’s I don’t have $250 I can spend on this hand-turned wooden vase, and honestly for most of the things I looked at, $250 was inexpensive. There was some amazing stuff there, but even if I had the money, I don’t know what the hell I’d do with a $250 wooden vase if I bought one, because we really don’t have that kind of house. At any rate, if you’re local, it’s open for a couple more hours today and all day tomorrow, although tomorrow there’s a risk of rain.

Instructions from the fair organizers were to mask up and socially distance, especially when you were actually in an artist’s booth, and you can probably get a good idea from the picture there how well that went over. The vaccination rate in St. Joseph County is less than 50%, so it’s an awfully interesting coincidence that no one who was unvaccinated showed up at this thing.

(That said, my self-righteousness only goes so far; I brought a mask with me but didn’t put it on. The crowds weren’t so tight that staying away from people was much of a challenge, and the event was outdoors. I did get into a conversation with one of the woodworkers that had me thinking about putting my mask on, since we were standing fairly close to each other and talking, but I didn’t end up doing it. That said, I’ve had my fucking shots.)

At any rate, this is the first time we’ve done something like this since February of 2020, so it was really nice to be outdoors and around people for a while. That said, I stepped in a hole as we were going back to the car and it went straight up my back and through my ribcage, so I expect to be unable to walk by the end of the day. This is probably my punishment for getting judgy about masks.

I can actually pinpoint fairly precisely when I learned Juneteenth was a thing– it was my senior year of college, in a class about Black American religion. So probably 1997, 1998 or so. I just reread Ralph Ellison’s novel of the same name, since I needed an author from Oklahoma and figured it was appropriate. And I’ll be honest: while my opinion matters not at all, I don’t love the idea of it being a national holiday– or, at least, I don’t love the idea of it being a national holiday in America.

Why? Because capitalism, and because this country can’t take a Goddamned thing seriously. Because this is exactly what’s going to happen:


I realized after recording that the Silverado is Chevy not Toyota but who cares #juneteenth

♬ original sound – Rynn

And this:

If you’re on TikTok, btw, you should be following both of these creators. They’re great.

Like, capitalism has destroyed Christmas. It’s fucking Thanksgiving all up. It’s eaten Memorial Day and Veterans Day. I don’t need it chewing up Juneteenth too. Especially galling, beyond the capitalism angle, is the fact that low-paying jobs are not going to be getting a holiday for Juneteenth precisely because capitalism is going to eat Juneteenth, and that means a whole lot of Black people working service jobs are going to have to work on that day.

Yell at me if you want, although I don’t think I’m going to have any takers among my current readership: I think only black people should get Juneteenth off. As a teacher I’m off every June 19 anyway, since school never goes that late, but it’s ridiculous that my lily-white ass might get a day off to celebrate the ending of slavery when the actual descendants of those slaves have to go to work so that I can buy a mattress or whatever fucked-up knickknacks Target vomits up for the day.

#REVIEW: Queen of the Conquered, by Kacen Callender

I generally don’t write reviews of books that I didn’t really like. There are a couple of exceptions here and there, where I really hated something and wanted to let others know of said hatred, and at least one bad review of a book by an author I really like that has honestly gotten more attention than I’ve wanted it to. And while I certainly didn’t hate Queen of the Conquered, I didn’t like it very much either, but there’s enough about it that’s interesting that I’m writing about it anyway.

Let’s start on a positive note: this book’s struggles are all with structure and character, but the writing itself is of high quality. Feel free to take this review with as much salt as necessary, because the things that bothered me may not bother other people, and Callender’s skills as a wordsmith are above average. While I’m not certain I have any further interest in this particular series, I’ll be keeping half an eye on them in the future and I can imagine buying more of their books later on. And, again, the subject material and setup is pretty damn interesting; getting to a point where you’re writing a book I pick up is half the battle.

So, that subject: Queen of the Conquered is set on an archipelago that has been conquered and colonized by people who aren’t specifically identified as Dutch or maybe Scandinavian (the book isn’t set on Earth) but certainly scan that way, and the dark-skinned natives are held as slaves. The main character, who has several names throughout the text and who I’m going to call Sigourney for consistency, is half-native but because of Reasons is effectively a member– if a despised member– of the ruling, white-skinned colonialist class. She is also one of a smaller number of people, some colonizers and some colonized, who have what is referred to as Kraft and what are effectively (non-superheroic) X-Men style mutants, as no one’s Kraft works like anyone else’s. There’s a woman who can make anyone feel pain at any time, and a dude who can ask questions that must be answered honestly, and another who can create fear in other people, but no, like, metal skin or laser blasts or anything like that. Sigourney’s Kraft allows her to see into the minds of other people and influence their thoughts or sometimes take over their bodies; there are scenes where she is attacked and she fights back by sequentially taking over her attackers and having them kill themselves.

See the tagline on the book up there, “They will know her vengeance”? The basic plot of the book is Sigourney’s plan to be named as regent by the king of the archipelago and take over the islands, then to slowly destroy the ruling class from within, even though from the beginning all of them hate her– including a husband who she basically forces into marriage– and the plan is rather underpants gnomey throughout the book.

Spoiler alert: they will not know her vengeance, at least not in this book. They will know some vengeance, but it won’t be Sigourney’s; one of my major gripes with this book is just how passive she is throughout the book. She talks a lot about her plan to be named regent, but never really does anything about it, and the really weird thing is that throughout the book someone else is killing off a lot of the ruling class and while Sigourney is getting blamed for it by all the white people she doesn’t actually have any idea who is doing all the killing and spends good chunks of time hiding in her mansion and being worried that someone is going to cut her head off.

There’s a lot going on here that is interesting: Sigourney’s relationship with her husband, who hates her, and her relationship with her husband’s black half-brother, who also hates her (everyone hates her; be prepared for that) and the simple novelty of a book written from inside the head of someone who is of the same blood as all the enslaved people around her (many of whom are enslaved by her) and who is therefore despised by literally every other character in the book, even her closest allies, and who is trying to navigate the racism of those in her class and the (entirely reasonable) class-and-oppression based hatred of her own slaves– it turns out that “you look like us but are enslaving us anyway” is not a reason for people to like you– along with trying to bring her own plan to conquer the islands and free those slaves, but without anyone who she can confide in about that plan, because, again, everyone hates her.

(There is also a really interesting conversation where her husband’s half-brother, who, remember is enslaved by that half-brother and therefore by her as well, forces her to cut through the underpants gnomery of her plan and think about what she’s going to do with all these former enslaved people once– if– her plan works, and her utter befuddlement at the idea that she’d lose some of her privileges is really a thing to read.)

Figuring out who is doing all of the killing by the end of the book is an interesting measure of how much you buy into the racist structure of the world Sigourney lives in, by the way, and the fact that she herself doesn’t figure it out demonstrates nicely where in that structure she really thinks she belongs.

Ultimately I think the weight of all of this just became overwhelming for the author; this is a really interesting setup but it’s balancing an awful lot and the combination of narrative complexity with a fairly passive main character who can’t really talk to anyone so she just spends a lot of time thinking and reflecting and living in her own head– which is kind of boring, honestly– ends up really hurting the book. This was a three-star for me; not at all bad enough that I’d call it bad, as what it is is a novel with a lot of promise and some serious problems, but not good enough to really recommend it. If after reading this you think this might be worth a look at anyway, I’d go ahead and follow that impulse, but maybe try and get it from the library if you can.

Things I’m just going to leave here




Up to you whether you do anything with them.

In which I don’t like liking things


Consider this a sequel, if you like, to the posts entitled “In which I don’t like things” and “In which I like things“; there will presumably be a post called “In which I like not liking things” at some point in the future, although let’s be honest: given my personality, that could be just about any post.  Like, say, this one.

I read the memoirs of former President of the Confederate States of America Jefferson Davis a couple of years ago.  It was a hard slog– first of all, because they’re two enormous volumes (volume 1 alone in the edition I linked to is 704 pages, and while that’s not the edition I read, I’d wager that’s 704 pages of small print) and second and more importantly because Jefferson Davis is an inveterate, unrepentant liar.  My wife thought it was God damned hilarious; I spent most of a couple of weeks arguing with a dead man before I gave up and hurled one of the damn books across the room and declared I wasn’t pushing any more of Davis’ lying bullshit into my head any longer.  It will surprise no one that Davis spends the entirety of his memoirs whining ceaselessly about the big mean bad North and how they were just so mean to the Confederacy and started the war for no reason and blah blah blah God go flee the capital in your wife’s dress again, asshole.

I just finished reading Gone with the Wind… well, today, actually, since I’m writing this on Thursday to autopost Friday morning, but by the time you see this it’ll be yesterday.  My mother has championed Gone with the Wind as her favorite book and movie for literally my entire life.  I mean no disrespect when I follow that sentence immediately by telling you that my mother doesn’t read much and that her recommendation never managed to put a copy of the book into my hands.  (No one really knows where I came from; no one in my family is remotely the reader that I am.)  She found out late last year that I planned to read GwtW as part of The List and insisted on buying me a copy.  I made it clear that there was no way I was getting to it before 2014, as I was working on hitting 200 and I figured a) it was way too long and b) I was going to hate it and it was going to be a thousand pages of pain.  

Gone with the Wind is the second most blatantly racist thing I have ever read in my life; or at least if it isn’t I’m not going to take the time to explore my memory long enough to find counter-examples.  It would be first with a bullet if I hadn’t read Davis’ memoirs.  It is racist in its characters, its history, its story structure; it is racist in such a way as to make it impossible to believe that Margaret Mitchell was not herself a stone-cold racist and a Southern apologist– and, as the dust jacket on the book tells me she did not discover that the South lost the Civil War until she was ten, I have very little trouble thinking that this might be a controversial declaration.

Here’s the thing, though.  (You knew there would be a thing.)  First of all, 1924.  I kinda expect white people in 1924 to be racist assholes.  For the most part they really didn’t have a choice about it back then.  (You’ll note I don’t say “she lived in a racist society;” live in a racist society.  That’s a constant.  But I have a choice about it in a way that I really can’t say Margaret Mitchell did.)

Here’s the other thing:  I should have listened to my mother.  Or, at least, my mother should have shoved this book into my hands and locked me in a room fifteen or twenty years ago; I don’t actually  remember her insisting that I read the book, although I have vague memories of her making us watch the movie– but that so long ago that other than the line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” (which is not what he says in the book!) I didn’t remember a single thing about it.  Honest truth– there wasn’t a single part of the book that triggered a memory of the movie.  I remembered nothing.

Gone with the Wind is fucking amazing.  So good, in fact, that I’m mad at myself, because nothing this awful should be this good.  The relationship between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, fucked up as it is, is one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen in literature.  Hell, Scarlett herself, flawed as she is– and the woman is a supreme asshole– is utterly fascinating.  There’s something weirdly proto-feminist about her, almost, and I’m really interested (I haven’t done the legwork on Google yet, but I’m gonna) in seeing what a feminist take on the book looks like.  Scarlett is so well-drawn that I almost can forgive the book’s ubiquitous whitewashing/sanitizing of the history of the Confederacy and Reconstruction because, even though know that shit didn’t happen like Gone with the Wind really, really wants you to, the entire book is told through Scarlett’s eyes– and Scarlett sure as shit would have believed that the South was entirely blameless and that the darkies were all her family (even when she was threatening to whip or skin them, and then only when they deserved it) and didn’t really want to be free and that Reconstruction ushered hordes of illiterate former slaves into office where they picked their toes and took lots of bribes.  This is absolutely how Scarlett would have interpreted what actually happened, so the book reports it that way.

(Sidenote: This is much the same phenomenon that I talked about a couple of weeks ago, where there’s no way that–warning, spoilers in the link– Joel’s story from The Last of Us ends any other way than it did.)

Problem is, that’s probably bullshit, and the book drops out of Scarlett’s head every now and again to give what basically amounts to occasional history lessons.  This is the reason why I claim that it’s impossible to read the book and not think that Mitchell herself has got to have been a huge racist– because of the impersonal, history-book style the book adopts for a few pages every couple of chapters.

I don’t really like the fact that I liked this book as much as I did.  This book contributes directly to– hell, had a hand in creating– a narrative about the South that is literally still poisoning racial and regional relations in this country; the Noble Cause, the Glorious Dead, all that nonsense and rot.  In a weird way, it’s almost a point of recommendation– that Gone with the Wind is, historically and politically, awful— and that it still manages to be a wonderful enough novel that I had to tell those other parts of my brain to sit down, shut up, and go away because jesus there’s still 500 pages left and I have reading to do.

I’m gonna stop now; I could say more but the post is long enough already.  I may revisit this again later if it turns out that I can actually find some feminist literature on this story and want to talk about it; if you happen to know of anything I should be looking at, let me know in comments.