i don’t know if i am going to actually review this book so much as talk around my experience with this book/series. there’s a big fat (figurative) elephant at the end of this one, and it influenced the way i felt about the whole book, but it cannot be mentioned, so imma try to dance around it best i can. bear with me.
in short, i wanted to like this book/series more than i did. the covers are gorgeous, and—less superficially—the premise is appealing; a magic-infused take on slave rebellions during danish colonization of the virgin islands. but while i liked parts of it very much—the characters, the tension, and especially the way they wrote the memory-erasure sequences—i had the same fundamental problems with this one as i did with Queen of the Conquered: it was confusing and there was too much exposition—we are told too many things instead of experiencing events alongside the characters.
this tendency to info-dump is made more exasperating by the constant barrage of proper nouns, which slowed me down considerably.
Each island had a lead contact in the network of whispers, who, following the night of the first revolt, should have beome the leaders of each island as well. The leader of Skov Helle is a man named Lambert; the leader of Nørup Helle, a man named Martijn. The leader of Årud Helle is a woman named Voshell.
i’m notoriously bad at reading fantasy because it’s hard for me to keep the strings of fantasy people, places, and things from tangling in my head.
Kjerstin asks to speak with any scouts who might be on the island, but Zeger says that all messengers had left Nørup Helle to contact Hans Lollik Helle and never returned. “We assumed they were killed by the Fjern at sea.”
i also experienced some geographical confusion, which is entirely my fault. i’m very maps-schmaps, so even when they have been courteously provided by the author to enhance my reading experience, i never look at ’em. so, although i could have turned to the helpful map at any point when things were getting jumbled up in my mind, i did not. mea culpa. still, there are too damn many similarly-named islands, and characters are forever traveling to one or another, and then returning from one or another, or temporarily relocating to one or another, and i had to keep pausing to remember which fresh helle is this?
so, yes—i found it difficult to sink into the story, i was often confused, there were times when i felt like i was missing pages; trying to track down where certain characters were or what had actually happened, and when, because—again—so much of this book’s events transpire through exposition rather than action.
mind you, there was plenty i did understand, and even enjoyed, in between my page-flipping confusion. this takes place directly after the events of Queen of the Conquered, and the idealistic løren jannik has been chosen to lead the revolution of what remains of his people against what remains of the fjern. they are still vastly outnumbered.
their situation isn’t completely hopeless: the islanders have weapons and warriors, and their abilities are underestimated by the fjern, giving them the element of surprise. additionally, people fighting for a cause; for their freedom, fight hard, and those accustomed to deprivations and performing hard labor in unforgiving conditions can endure more physical discomfort than soft people unaccustomed to conflict. also, some of the islanders, unbeknownst to the fjern, have kraft—magical powers the fjern have attempted to eradicate over the years by exterminating any islander displaying these powers, believing it to be their right alone.
the islanders also have a secret weapon in sigourney, the master manipulator/aspiring queen of the conquered who is currently wolfing in the fjern’s flock, able to communicate with løren across great distances, using their kraft.
and all løren has to do is unite his people and guide them to victory.
the big philosophical question re: leadership has always been: is it better to be loved or feared?
here, the question is closer to: is it better, as a leader, to be empathetic or realistic?
løren is all empathy—he doesn’t want to see any more of his people die, he believes life is precious and that people can change, even when allowing certain people to live, like sigourney, leaves himself—and the revolution—open to betrayals. and he is betrayed, proven wrong, by many people, time and time again.
we’ve seen what happens when the wrong person is in charge of things, but løren acts like an ideal leader: taking counsel from his advisors, weighing decisions, trying to minimize casualties, but uniting people who are scattered across a number of islands in a fight to free themselves from the yoke of slavery against an unbeatable enemy is a big task, and the situation may be too complicated to handle with optimism and mercy. under different circumstances, he might be an excellent leader, but against the infighting, the power struggles, the snitches willing to sell out their own people to curry favor with their oppressors, the bloodbaths, and the growing frustration of his advisors who have more strategic military agendas, løren struggles, and no matter how he tries, his people keep dying while those still alive question his suitability for the role.
the biggest controversy is his continued trust in sigourney. her relationship with her people—and løren in particular—has been fraught, and his advisors berate him for keeping her alive, for colluding with her, but løren believes people can change their nature despite all evidence to the contrary. insert frog/scorpion story here.
then again, sometimes the frog eats the scorpion, so who knows?
so, løren’s learning that power is hard. and powers are even harder.
which leads to another question: what is worse, a leader who abuses their power, or a leader who wastes their power? the former has a much better chance of achieving one’s goals, but then you’re into the whole question of whether the ends justify the means and you’re back to the first book, with sigourney and her admirable ends, questionable means. still, waste your power and you get…this.
and now i’m going to shift into broader and seemingly unconnected stuff in order to dance around the thing i can’t talk about with yet another question: is it better to respect an author’s attempt or love an author’s work?
callender has said of this duology:
Queen of the Conquered and King of the Rising are about the consequences of refusing to learn from mistakes, refusing to grow and change.
in that light, these books are a great success—they accomplish exactly what they set out to do, but—i would argue—this success is at the expense of the reader, who is left struggling to understand what their investment of time was all for. i can appreciate the mission statement, but it doesn’t help me enjoy the ride.
as a reader you have certain basic expectations: a mystery will be solved, a prophecy foretold will come to pass, the titular character will make an appearance in the book, there will be some physical contact in a romance novel, there will be a satisfying conclusion or an equally-satisfying ambiguity at the story’s end.
and sure, there are outliers—books that subvert expectations and reader-hopes, and those that do it well stand out:
tana french’s debut mystery In the Woods View Spoiler »centers on a murder with striking similarities to a decades-old case of great personal significance to the detective. the reader becomes invested in getting answers to both of the mysteries, but their connection turns out to be coincidental, and the old case remains unsolved, leaving readers and characters in a state of half-closure. « Hide Spoiler
in veronica roth’s Allegiant, View Spoiler »in a rare-for-YA-megahit-series move, beloved heroine tris dies halfway into this third book, leaving another character to carry the trilogy through to its conclusion. « Hide Spoiler
christopher pike’s Final Friends Trilogy View Spoiler »takes three books to get to the bottom of whether a girl killed herself or was murdered, only to conclude that her death was accidental. « Hide Spoiler
to me, those are ballsy and laudable divergences from the expected.
but unmet expectations can also be deeply unsatisfying. to avoid talking about this book in particular, i will rehash a personal anecdote i used in a very old review:
i am really into lateral thinking puzzles—those brain teasers where you’re given an endpoint and then you have to come up with yes or no questions to figure out what happened: there’s a body hanging from the rafters of a room whose ceiling in twelve feet high. the room is locked from the inside and is completely empty, except for a puddle of water on the ground. what happened? and once you’ve asked the right questions, it becomes clear that View Spoiler »it’s one of those suicide-by-standing-on-a-block-of-ice scenarios « Hide Spoiler. so, one time i was on a long drive with my college beau, and we were doing these back and forth to pass the time. when i ran out of ones i knew, i decided to make one up, but i did not tell him i was making it up:
a man is found in a haystack with a turkey baster wearing a roman centurion helmet. what is the situation?
he tried to figure this one out for nearly an hour before giving up and begging me for the answer. i just shrugged and said “i don’t know. guess he was just crazy.”
this is not why we broke up, but i would have understood if he had dumped me on the spot.
in the real world, outside the construct of a novel, all four of these outcomes are perfectly reasonable, even likely scenarios—crimes go unsolved, people die, crazy people end up in haystacks and there’s no flipping reason, nor do we expect one, but in a novel, you want there to have been a point, a reason you invested your time.
i’m fine with reader-imbalance, but some rug-yanks are more jarring than others, and while they very well may reflect a realistic end to a situation, you can be left wondering, “why did i read all of this to get here?” or “why am i dating this horrible, lateral-thinking-puzzle-ruining person?”
because as much as the possibility of THE ELEPHANT was brought up not even 100 pages into the book, foreshadowy AF:View Spoiler » “Don’t look so concerned for me,” Kjerstin says, her voice a whisper. “I never expected to live very long anyway. We are in the middle of a war, after all.”
I frown at her. “The point is to survive the revolution. Win, and finally live a life of freedom.”
She laughs at me, though regrets it as she winces. “The people who fight the revolution will never get to enjoy the freedom, Loren,” she says. “We’re not going to live through this. You know that.”
“If we’re not going to live through this, then what’s the point in fighting?”
“That’s the thing,” she says, “There is no point. No point to living, either. So I might as well give my life, trying to do something right.”
still, it makes all of løren’s implied divine purpose utterly moot.
It wasn’t a surprise, that I hadn’t died.
It seemed the spirits were never done with me.
the ending is, unfortunately, realistic but it undermines the prophecies that were set up; the idea that løren had been chosen, spared by the gods repeatedly. does this make him delusional? a failed leader, a successful martyr? hard truth that sometimes your best isn’t good enough, sometimes the signs are coincidences, sometimes you fail, all for nothing, and there’s no point. but the takeaway can’t just be: shit happens. or can it? if there were a third book planned—where the revolution would continue through another character’s story—that would be one thing; his death would have been a rung on the ladder to freedom or whatever, but instead we’re left, after reading two whole books, with the realistic, depressing conclusion that empathy lets people walk all over you, the oppressed will remain oppressed, resistance is futile. oh, and that there are consequences to refusing to learn from mistakes, refusing to grow and change. « Hide Spoiler
pretty bleak lesson after a shitty year.
well, shit. i am not at all sure how i feel about this. i respect the balls of it, but did i enjoy it?
i need to marinate in these post-read thoughts-n-feels for a bit.
oooOOOoooo a halloween miracle!!!
got a little smooshed in the mail, but it’s still a beautiful book. i’m excited to conquer my bookstack to get to it!