The trans-Atlantic slave trade has formed so many facets of modern cultural relationships, it’s hard to understate the impact of that in human industry. In Queen of the Conquered, Kacen Callendar reimagines the Caribbean in the era of slavery, setting it far closer to its European neighbors and infusing it with magic. In The Deep, Rivers Solomon—basing their novella off of the Hugo-nominated song of the same title from experimental hip hop group clipping (which in turn drew inspiration from the music of Drexciya)—an entire marine species was birthed from pregnant mothers thrown off of slave ships. In their anger, they can cause the seas to rage against the surface dwellers who would continue to oppress them.
While both delve heavily into the consequences of the slave trade, both also investigate the nature of memory, and how memory shapes the self. Callendar narratives from the perspective of Sigourney Rose, a free-born islander who is the only surviving member of her family, who has risen to power in the islands so that she can take revenge on the rulers. Her kraft—her magical ability—allows her to skim the thoughts of others, or delve more deeply into them to gain the secrets she needs.
Solomon works primarily from the perspective of Yetu, a historian of the wajinru, who holds the memories of all her people throughout their history, so that the rest of the wajinru can live free of the pain of those memories. The way both central characters wander through the memories of others offers a second commonality that allows the two narratives to reflect and contrast each other in compelling ways.
Sigourney’s narrative begins feeling much like The Count of Monte Cristo (written by Alexandre Dumas, who was himself the grandson of a black Caribbean slave). The Fjern ruling families of Hans Lollik Helle, the islands that make up Sigourney’s home nation, are responsible for the deaths of Sigourney’s family, murdering them out of spite because Sigourney’s dark-skinned mother, who was born a slave, was invited to the capital by the king, whom, it was rumored, might have considered her as a potential heir. The pale-skinned Fjern cannot bear the idea of being ruled by someone as dark as their slaves, so they slaughter Sigourney’s entire family, not realizing that she has escaped.
After fleeing, Sigourney turns to her cousin, who is among the ruling families but was not aware of the plot; he pays for her to travel in the north, where she is respected as a free woman, and eventually—with the help of Sigourney’s kraft—makes her his heir. She uses his last name to ingratiate herself with another of the ruling families until she can marry into that name, securing herself the same invitation to the capital that her mother once had. There, she believes, she will be able to enact her revenge on the families who murdered hers.
But once on the island, things start to fall apart. Refreshingly, her true identity is revealed early on. It changes little in how the other nobles look at her—they hated her for her skin color, and they believe she has as little right to sit at their tables as her mother. Sigourney had planned to use her kraft to convince the king she should become the next ruler, but when she reaches for the king’s mind and soul, she finds nothing, only blankness. When the nobles start being murdered, picked off one by one, in plots she has no hand in, she realizes that the game is larger than she realized, and believes that someone among the nobles is manipulating the king—and the nobles—until no one is left to rule but them.
The twists and turns are unpredictable, and the world of the story is deep and vibrant. Sigourney herself is a problematic narrator. Blessed from birth with her freedom, she fears skimming the memories and thoughts of the islanders, because she knows they revile her. She can live with the hatred of the Fjern, but from those she views as her own people, she can’t stomach it.
But despite this—or perhaps because of if—Sigourney also never truly views the islanders, who she also holds as slaves, as people. She believes that she loves the woman who rescued her, who raised her, and whom she freed, and refuses to see that the woman—who has grown to love her—also has no choice in her own destiny but stay with Sigourney. That lack of acknowledgment makes Sigourney, whose rage and revenge run deeper than any empathy, a difficult narrator to root for, except that the Fjern nobles around her are so much worse. As the novel comes to a close, and the truth of the plot is revealed, the entire story falls into place. The truth may not surprise readers as much as it surprises Sigourney, but even if the twist isn’t a shock, the rightness of the result is so satisfying, readers may well decide to read the novel again immediately after reaching the last page, to see where they missed clues along the way.
Yetu, on the other hand, is a more likeable, hopeful protagonist. Burdened with not only the memories of her people, but also a sensitivity to the presence of others that makes her prefer solitude, Yetu isn’t sure she’ll be able to survive the next Remembering. During the ritual, she passes all the memories back to the other wajinru, so that they can all take part in their history, so that they know who they are. Without the Remembering, the wajinru begin to forget themselves; in their day to day lives, they easily dismiss past transgressions, forgetting them almost immediately after they happen. But if they forget easily, they also crave knowledge of who they are, something restored to them only in the Remembering. For a few blissful days, Yetu will be free of the other memories, existing only as herself. But taking back the memories will kill her, she is certain, and so Yetu flees, leaving her people in the throes of memory.
Although the act may seem selfish, it’s clear to the reader that it’s an act of self-preservation. When she lands in a shallow pond at the surface, at the mercy of the surface dwellers (who care for her as she heals), it takes developing a real friendship for Yetu to begin to view her own people in a kinder fashion. Yetu wants to believe that the wajinru will be able to handle the memories and the pain; ultimately, when the storms rising from the sea make it clear that they cannot, she fulfills her duty, hoping that one day she will find a better way, a new path forward where there is no separation between the historian and the wajinru. The solution presented at the end of the story is a surprise, and the deep understanding the others develop for the pain of history—and the importance of holding onto it for themselves—allows Yetu and the wajinru together to reinvent themselves.
While Yetu and the others have no forgiveness for the two-legged villains who threw their original mothers into the sea, or who threaten their world with climate change and an unquenchable thirst for oil, Yetu realizes that there are individuals who are worth learning about and understanding, whether wajinru or two-legged. And it’s her growth and connection to others that maker her so easy to empathize with, and so easy to follow into the bright surface or the depths of the ocean.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade is never a pleasant topic, and it shouldn’t be. The consequences of that slave trade, and the echoes they have caused throughout history, are painful to consider, and there are few clear paths toward righting those wrongs. The fantasy genre has often turned a blind eye to those consequences, focusing instead on feudal societies where such thorny issues are glossed over or never existed. Bringing that history into fantasy fiction gives readers another lens, another set of perspectives, and a deeper sense of memory—not only for secondary worlds, but for the world where those echoes still ripple across the waves.
Alana Joli Abbott writes about books for Den of Geek. Read more of her work here.