As part of the Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards panel, I get to choose which categories I’ll read at each stage. This year, I put my hand up for Series and Novellas; I’m now halfway through the series so before I dive back into novellas I want to round up my thoughts on the first instalments of two of our Series nominees.
The Series category requires nominees to be a completed series with an over-arching plot and shared characters; and we are obliged to read at least half of each series. One of the challenges with a category so broad is the mishmash of genres and tones it can include. In our first year, the field included The Broken Earth, Rupert Wong and The Memoirs of Lady Trent, which is enough to give any reader whiplash. This year – surprisingly – all our nominees are fantasy, which should make it easier to choose, right?
I’ve previously sung the praises of the Daevabad trilogy, the Dominion of the Fallen universe and the Witches of Lychford novellas, so I came into this with my heart on my subjective sleeve. However, I was also a big fan of The Poppy War, and both Islands of Blood and Storm and Sweet Black Waves sounded sufficiently intriguing to suggest this category would be a really tough choice.
I wasn’t wrong.
Queen of the Conquered – Kacen Callender
An anti-colonial fantasy that sets fantasy’s romantic notions of revolution on fire. Set in a tropical island paradise enslaved by cruel foreign invaders, it is narrated by a mixed-race noblewoman determined to take back control and avenge her family’s death. The catch? She will do it by playing the kongelig at their own game: playing by their rules right up to the point where she plans to start cheating.
Kacen Callender presents an unflinching look at the horrors of Caribbean colonial rule under the thinnest gloss of secondary world-building. Queen of the Conquered is a relentlessly bleak read, because protagonist Sigourney is complicit in the kongelig’s cruelty: the book opens with her ordering the execution of an islander slave for the sin of having magical powers… as Sigourney does. Her actions mean the islanders hate her, just as the Fjern nobility hate her for her dark skin. Worse, her gift is to read minds: she knows everybody hates her. She can only trust the islanders will forgive her ruthless choices – almost always made at their expense – once she ascends the throne; but as she comes to question whether she can afford to free them, redemption feels an even remoter possibility than success.
This is as much a study of the corrupting nature of power as a tale of rebellion and revenge, and one that leans heavily into misdirection and mystery. Suffice to say that very little is as it seems; and the reveals of the final act are devastating less for pulling the shroud off the book’s secrets as for the depths of hatred and ambition that are uncovered in the process. Callender handles their themes expertly, making this a powerful read I admired rather than enjoyed. However, I found the execution slow and repetitive (Sigourney, unsurprisingly, tends to brood and feel sorry for herself) and with no characters to root for beyond a vague hope that all the principles will get their comeuppance, it was a slog in places. Objectively this scores very highly; subjectively, less so.
Sweet Black Waves – Kristina Pérez
A re-imagining of the tragic romance of Tristan and Isolde from the perspective of Isolde’s cousin Branwen – Tristan’s first love. When Branwen saves a Kernyveu enemy from drowning, honour dictates she then protects him; and her heart agrees. Her royal cousin Eseult is duty-bound to marry in the best interest of Iveriu, but she favours an unsuitable nobleman. As political and Otherworldly forces swirl around the cousins, matters of the heart and of honour become ever more tangled.
I went into this excited for a Celtic fantasy and to see a lesser-told legend revisited. However, this is very much a YA fantasy retelling of the French mediaeval romance (rather than the sparser fragments that are found in the Mabinogion). Expect not one, not two, but three love triangles (of sorts), along with tournaments, favours and a lot of teenage brooding (Branwen) and sulking (Eseult) but little character development.
Sweet Black Waves may make readers who enjoy (enemies-to-lovers) romances very happy: for me, the insta-love set my teeth on edge and the world-building felt like a thin gloss to excuse the anachronisms that come with mediaeval ballads about Dark Age legends (this isn’t our 5th century Britain and Ireland, so it doesn’t have to be historically accurate). Yet it stumbled over its own internal logic too: I never did understand why Branwen‘s marriage was apparently her choice – as the Queen’s niece and ward, she should surely have been another valuable political bargaining chip regardless of who inherited her father’s title (and it’s never clear who did).
For me, the best bits involved the Otherworld: the scenes in which Branwen seeks Otherworldly aid as she learns to work magic and the Pirates of the Caribbean zombie pirate attack were chilling. However, I was mostly caught on the horns of nodding to Pérez for a largely faithful retelling whilst being frustrated by the lack of invention as the plot dragged out. Sweet Black Waves ticks pretty much every box for why I don’t read YA or romantic fantasy very often; sadly with none of the elements that can win me over regardless.
As things stand, Sweet Black Waves is the only series I’m not tempted to vote for (although I’m obliged to read at least half of sequel Wild Savage Stars, so it still has a chance to change my mind) – but as I can only vote for two, I’ve still got much wrestling to do.
Next time, on Subjectively Speaking: either Wild Savage Stars and The Dragon Republic or a novella round-up, depending what I get to first!