Freedom from slavery has a cost, not just in human lives but in the internal torture of mind and morality brought on by lifetimes spent in forced repudiation of one’s language, culture, religion and self-esteem. For an ex-slave to have a position of privilege in the midst of this history of oppression is all the more problematic. This is the reality permeating the powerful, riveting and brave novel King of the Rising, the second part of Kacen Callender’s brilliant Islands of Blood and Storm duology.
Like its predecessor, Queen of the Conquered, this Caribbean-inspired fantasy is told from a single point of view. In the first book it was that of Sigourney Rose, a mixed blood daughter of a well to do islander family who had managed to make herself a candidate to lead the Fjern dominated islands. The Fjern are a white skinned people who enslaved the native dark skinned inhabitants, taking from them everything, language, culture, even their name, referring to them only as slaves or islanders.
In King of the Rising we are inside the mind of Løren, the bastard son of a Fjern lord and an islander mother. This world becomes real to us primarily through his thoughts rather than through external description. That is because the two most important elements of his island world relate to internal struggles.
First, kraft or the mental magic a few people can exert, takes Løren inside the minds of most of the people he meets. That’s how we learn what is really at stake for each character. During a confrontation early in King of the Rising, Løren uses his power to try to calm an angry young man, all without saying a word or taking any outer action:
“I scoop my hands into the anger. It’s wet like white clay, molding in my hands and draining between my fingers until I’m only left with the sharp glass of his pain. I push the glass into my palms, wincing as I try to absorb the emotion. I can’t take all of it. His pain is inconsolable, with the depths of the sea. But I do take some of the burden from Georg.”King of the Rising, ARC Kindle edition, location 268
Second, he, like most of the other characters, is always dealing with the internalized effects of a slave society. Løren has always had a somewhat privileged position as a mixed blood slave, but a slave nonetheless. He can never forget the way he was used, forced to kill on command, to abuse his own people or to allow himself to be raped by his masters. This is the twisted history that has filled the islanders with hate but also distorted the way each of them sees the possibilities of life.
Queen of the Conquered used a mystery trope to build suspense. The question was who is killing off prominent members of the Fjern? In King of the Rising there is a similar but less central device as the rebel islanders try to identify a secret informant who is revealing their plans ahead of time to the Fjern.
But the most intense drama is the struggle of the narrator in each book to find acceptance among the islanders. For Sigourney Rose that place was leadership in terms she understood from the Fjern, making herself queen over all the islands. For Løren, it is a more tortured journey to find a form of leadership that respects the truth of each person and shows understanding and mercy toward everyone.
The great question is whether or not either form of leadership will be accepted by the mass of the islanders. Løren has to navigate his way through a scheming world that suspects him of treachery every time he shows his humanity and disappoints those who want a decisive and ruthless leader.
To find his way, Løren uses his two-fold kraft. He can not only step inside the minds of others and hear their thoughts, giving him great understanding and empathy for what they are going through, even his enemies. He can also absorb the kraft of others, though he cannot use it as effectively as they do. He has taken on a shadow of Sigourney’s power to take control of people’s minds, even to the point of having them kill their allies or themselves. He has some of the healing kraft of another islander and the power to strategize of yet another.
These abilities could make him extremely powerful, but they just as often make his efforts to lead all the more complicated. His wish for the rebellion is that it offer true, inner freedom to all, while Sigourney is focused more on gaining power for herself.
It’s a powerful tension that leads to a wrenching climax. Much of this tension plays out in mental dialogues as Sigourney uses her power to get into Løren’s mind to convince him to help her. Their starkly different world views come out in one of these confrontations early in King of the Rising. As Løren summarizes the contrast to Sigourney in one of her intrusions into his mind:
“The only way you understand how to live in this world is how you’ve survived the Fjern. They are willing to steal and enslave and kill to fulfill their greed. That’s where we differ. We don’t need to take advantage of others to live. We rely on one another. Everyone is able to live because no one person prospers over another. There is no throne, there is no crown. There’s only our community and our people.”King of the Rising, ARC Kindle edition, location 723
That might sound a bit didactic for a novel, but this story is anything but preachy. There is plenty of action, a lot of violence, intrigue among competing groups and suspense about the outcome that keep the pace going.
King of the Rising drew me in for the power of the fundamental drama it poses of how or whether a compassionate man can play a leading role in a bloody rebellion. Callender invests scenes of battle with the same intensity as the tortured inner confrontations Løren endures through the action of his kraft and his conscience. It’s a brilliant book. Hopefully it will be issued in compendium form with Queen of the Rising. Each can be enjoyed separately, but they really should be read together to get the full scope of this unforgettable story.