Kacen Callender’s unforgettable new fantasy Queen of the Conquered explores thorny questions of race, privilege and power in a lushly detailed Caribbean-inspired setting. Sigourney Rose, the only leader descended from indigenous islanders in the colony of Hans Lollik, tells herself that her ruthless mission to become the ruler of all the islands will enable her to free the enslaved, but her own personal vendettas and quest for power complicate her every move. We talked to Callender about the intersections between discrimination and privilege, the history that inspired Queen of the Conquered and more.
Was there a real-life inspiration behind the character of Sigourney Rose? Readers will really be torn between rooting for her and being afraid of her, but there’s no doubt she’s a unique protagonist on multiple levels.
Yes, I was inspired to write Sigourney Rose’s character in part from history and in part by my own experiences as someone who is oppressed but also has privilege. When I was in high school, I first learned that Black people had also once owned slaves, and that fact stuck with me throughout the years as I wondered what sort of person would degrade their own people for the sake of power.
This was a horrifying quality of Sigourney’s since she does own slaves who’re also islanders, and as the main protagonist, I knew that she had to be sympathetic at least on some level for readers to care enough to continue reading about her journey. Her family’s massacre at the hands of the colonizers was a part of this. I also wanted to explore what I think is a relatable conflict of being oppressed and knowing discrimination, but also having privilege, and in some ways contributing to systematic oppression simply by existing in a society that feeds on others.
“When I was in high school, I first learned that Black people had also once owned slaves, and that fact stuck with me.”
How did growing up in the U.S. Virgin Islands influence the setting of Queen of the Conquered? When you started writing, did you ever see yourself penning a novel set in a world inspired by your particular experience?
The U.S. Virgin Islands, which were once part of the Danish West Indies, were the inspiration for the fantasy world. The royal island of Queen of the Conquered is called Hans Lollik, for example, which is an island in the USVI. The language in Sigourney’s world also borrows from Danish. The magical ability in the book is called “kraft,” which means “power” in Danish—power as an ability, but also power as in privilege.
Growing up in the U.S. Virgin Islands did also influence the story as someone who was a local but attended a private school where for a few years I was the only Black, local student in the class. I faced horrific bullying and ostracization almost every day of my life by white students, but it was privilege that let me attend a private school. Throughout my life I’ve found myself in similar situations where privilege got me a place or position, but I’d be the only Black person in the room facing discrimination, which inspired Sigourney’s character. I love my home, and I’ve always wanted to write novels set in and based on the U.S. Virgin Islands, so hopefully there are many more to come.
What is your favorite genre to read? What drew you to write in the SFF genre?
I honestly don’t have a favorite genre to read. I love it all—it just depends on whatever mood I’m in. I do love speculative, though, because SFF is a metaphor for the real world and lets us take a look at our world from a different lens, which can sometimes offer even more clarity than if we had written about our world in a contemporary setting. Writing a contemporary about the intersection of privilege and discrimination might not have made the same points about power and systematic oppression in the way that I was able to in Queen of the Conquered.
"Writing a contemporary about the intersection of privilege and discrimination might not have made the same points about power and systematic oppression."
What settings have you not yet covered in your novels that you would like to escape/travel to through your fiction? What’s your favorite geographical location to write in?
Because I write contemporary, magical realism and speculative for both children and adults, I spend a lot of time thinking about real settings for the contemporary books and the pieces that could be taken from those places to create fantasy spaces. But I also like to look for the magic in the real world. I’ll walk around St. Thomas or my new neighborhood in West Philadelphia, and I’ll look up and see an alley or a field that feels out of place and stories begin to spark. There was once a park I’d walked through in New York City where suddenly the trees were almost too big and too green, butterflies started to rise from the grass with every step, and when I looked around there were no other people in sight. I began to think I’d walked into a completely different world. I turned a corner and got to the street where the city reappeared. When it was time to go home, I tried to find that section of the park again, but it’d completely disappeared and was replaced by swing sets and people walking their dogs. It’s possible I just made a wrong turn and/or that I have an overactive imagination, but it’s pieces of magic like this that I like to collect to create worlds.
“I . . . like to look for the magic in the real world.”
Sigourney eventually realizes that in certain lands, she is lumped into the same category as other people of color and inevitably endangered. All the while, the islanders of Hans Lollik fear and despise her for her psychic and political power. In your research and personal experience growing up in the islands, what did you unearth about the peoples who were colonized by others at this time? Were any of their stories the inspiration for Sigourney’s family?
There weren’t any specific stories that inspired Sigourney’s family besides what I’d learned in high school about Black people who did own slaves. Any research was focused on slavery in the Caribbean and what our ancestors had to endure to survive. There’s another key piece about slavery in the Caribbean that I did a bit of research for, but don’t want to discuss it here because it would risk spoiling the ending of the book.
This book introduces the concept of kraft, a unique reference to psychic power that is passed down through the family. Sigourney’s kraft allows her to manipulate but also experience others’ emotions, whereas others hold the power to commune with the dead, extract the truth, etc. What inspired this particular system of magic?
Kraft is specifically a mental ability, and just like in the real world, mental ability and talent is evenly distributed among all of us. However, the Fjern—the oppressors of Hans Lollik—declare that only they are allowed to have kraft by the divine right of their gods, and any islander found with kraft is executed. This is a metaphor for our world, because we also don’t allow everyone with ability the opportunity to use their talent to further themselves in the way that the Fjern do in Queen of the Conquered. People of color face mass incarceration and execution and racism and systematic oppression, taking away so many of our chances to use our talents and abilities as well.
It’s clear that Sigourney’s mental health has understandably deteriorated after the murder of her family and her continued participation in the kongeligs’ cruelty towards, genocide of and enslavement of the islanders. How important do you feel talking about mental health is for fantasy authors and authors in general, regardless of the genre they write in?
This is a close subject to me because of my own struggles with mental health, and I do often find myself writing about mental health at least in some aspect in most of my books. I don’t think that it should be a requirement for anyone to speak or write about mental health because this is something that can be triggering, and not everyone is in a place where they can speak or write openly about mental health. But, if authors are able to and feel inclined to do so, then it’s an important topic and the act of doing so could be potentially life-saving.
“We tell ourselves that we would’ve been better than our ancestors.”
Sigourney’s self-hatred and fear are palpable. How did you feel writing a protagonist who isn’t 100 percent admirable?
I wanted to write a protagonist that was morally gray because it feels more realistic and honest and vulnerable to me to write a character who struggles with many qualities that I do also. I face discrimination as a Black, queer and trans person, but I also have privileges that give me a comfortable home, food and water and education and the laptop that lets me write these books. There are people who would be able to do the same if they’d been given the same privileges as me. I think of how, in our society, so many of us like to consider ourselves the heroes of our own stories. We tell ourselves that we would’ve been better than our ancestors: We would’ve fought slavery, fought internment and concentration camps, stopped genocide. Yet these are all things that are happening in the world right now, and I feel a helplessness and hopelessness that Sigourney also struggled with. I think it’s important to wash away the ego and come to terms with the fact that we’re all morally gray people like Sigourney, who also aren’t 100 percent admirable, because then we’ll be able to begin to create real change.
Sigourney experiences a web of feelings, both physical and emotional, towards others, but she’s more focused on her own situation and end goals. What was your aim in writing a book about coming-of-age and aspiring towards ones’ goals, no matter what they might be?
Sigourney’s goals are technically admirable and understandable: She tells herself that she wants to take power back from the Fjern who have colonized her islands, enslaved her people and massacred her family for revenge. But what interests me most about any character’s goals are the complexities. Sigourney tells herself that she wants to take power back from the Fjern for the sake of her people, but she has to grapple with the idea that her desire for power might actually be for herself and her selfish greed. She tells herself that she acts for revenge, but she treats her people the same way that the Fjern do, and is no better than the other kongelig, or nobles, of the royal island. Though it seems that Sigourney always aspired to her goals no matter what, her path is filled with self-hatred and doubt, and this is coupled with the mystery of the murders of the kongelig, Sigourney often questions herself. My aim was to complicate Sigourney’s path realistically.
You’ve also worked as an editor, acquiring inclusive fiction and bringing a diverse array of voices to bookshelves. What do you hope readers will discover about the world or themselves after reading the books you’ve edited and acquired as a publishing professional?
I was an editor for children’s books, so for young readers, I always hope that they’ll come away from the books I edited with validation and self-love. I wanted marginalized voices to feel seen and heard since there’s so little representation for us.
Speaking of diversity in publishing and SFF, how do you think your books help add to this movement towards multicultural/LGBTQ+ fiction and representation of all sorts of character identities?
I think that my books specifically add to the movement of Black identities. I don’t want to write for people of color of cultures and identities other than my own because I don’t know their experiences and I don’t want to take space when I know there are others who’re trying to write their own stories and their own books. I hope that adding my voice to the mix as a Black, queer and trans person from the Caribbean allows others who share any piece of my identities to feel seen, especially as I keep writing and keep getting more stories with different mixtures of my identities into the world. I hope that people from other cultures and communities can read my books and see characters and cultures they might not see often enough, enriching their own worlds also.
What’s next for you and your writing? Will there be a continuation of Sigourney’s story, or the story of the people of Hans Lollik?
Yes, there’s a sequel titled King of the Rising, which will be from Løren’s perspective following the events of Queen of the Conquered.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Queen of the Conquered.
Author photo by Ashlee Cain.