So Kacen Callender’s Islands of Blood and Storm duology, which I picked up after the first volume won the World Fantasy Award, is really awkward to talk about, because the two books are completely different things, with different protagonists and different subjects, but they’re also directly linearly connected plotwise. I can’t talk about the second book at all without somewhat spoiling the first—and I think the second one is far more interesting.
The first book, Queen of the Conquered, starts off with a protagonist who hates herself and thinks she’s an awful person. This is, as I’ve griped about before, a huge YA trope, and given that Callender has mostly written YA, I was sort of settling in to be annoyed, but… it doesn’t go where you’d think it would go, and ends up being subtler than the usual tropey nonsense.
Plotwise, this ends up being weirdly like Gideon the Ninth in that a handful of aristocrats end up on this weird royal island, and there are mysteries to unravel while people start dying, and nobody quite trusts anyone else but also they’re not openly enemies, mostly.
It’s a frustrating book in some ways—characters with really obvious blind spots are so frustrating to read, even if their blind spots are realistic and in-character—and I think it ends up more good than great; but then it sets up the second book, which I think is unambiguously great.
If you’re already interested in reading the series, stop here, because now I’m going to talk a bit about the plot of King of the Rising, which sorta spoils a bit of the first, but I guess tbh maybe not more than the title itself does.
Okay, so the second novel is about a rebellion, right. And that’s not an uncommon subject in fantasy fiction, but it’s done here in much more of a historical mode. The leaders of the rebellion have all worked together to kick it off, but they’re not a band of doughty friends, they’re all prickly individuals with their own interests and goals and mindsets, who will come into conflict with each other as their immediate need for cooperation fades. And kicking out the bad guys doesn’t automatically usher in a new era of peace and prosperity—there are all kinds of problems, because trying to replace a government and an economic system in ways that still work while removing the injustices that drove the rebellion is a really hard problem.
The book is relentless in not allowing easy answers to these hard problems. It is throughout surprising, yet also inevitable, in its developments. Yes, of course this is how it had to go, even as that’s never how I expected it to go. Recommended.