Barb’s Recommended Read: The Island Queen

Doing something a bit different this month because I got sucked down a rabbit hole of non-fiction reading. I’m posting my review of Island Queen today. Another post, compiling the various followed by a special philosophy next week. And now, without further ado….


Those of you who read my recommendations each month know that I am lukewarm at best when it comes to historical biographies.  Some, like The Collector’s Daughter, are entertaining, others I’ve thrown against the wall.  My problem with these books boils down to one of two reasons: Frequently, I’m reading about someone I’m extremely familiar with, like Hedy Lemar or Grace Kelly, and thus the voice imposed upon them feels off, or the author has fallen so in love with their subject that they end up airbrushing the person’s flaws. 

Having devoured Vanessa Riley’s Island Queen, it is my opinion that everyone who writes (or wishes to write) historical biography read this book. Riley gives a masterclass on how to bring an historical figure to life.  Her version of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas manages to be bold, intelligent, sensual, stubborn, naïve, hypocritical, cold, loving, proud, hot tempered, tender, and fierce.  Talk about a multi-faceted character!

Island Queen is the real-life story of Mrs. Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, a Caribbean slave from the mid-18th century who, after buying her freedom, became the richest woman in Demerara (British Guiana). In addition to building her empire, she secured manumission for her grandmother, mother, sister, and several of her children (several more were born free), bedded the son of the British king, and successfully petitioned the British government to overturn a taxation law that penalized freed black women.  She owned a thriving plantation, a pair of hotels and several successful stores.

In short, she was a freaking rock star.

With all this material, Riley could have easily settled for recounting Thomas’s accomplishments and put out a decent, if not ordinary, novel.  However, instead Riley focuses on Thomas’s relationships. It’s a brilliant choice.  Dorothy Thomas was a strong black woman at a time when blacks were considered property, and when women of all races were expected to be docile and submissive. In order to success, Dorothy had to make a lot of tough choices – choices that often estranged her from the people she loved. In showing readers the consequences of Dorothy’s actions – and allowing them to suffer along with Dorothy – Riley makes her heroine human.  We aren’t reading about Dorothy Thomas’s accomplishments, we’re experiencing them along with her. When she is successful, we cheer. When something bad happens (and bad stuff does happen) we cry.

Another point in Island Queen’s favor is it’s pacing.  I discussed pacing in commercial fiction with my friend Renee Ryan recently on our new internet show, Off the Shelf.  Literary fiction has beautiful prose and plots that often unfold leisurely. Genre fiction, on the other hand, requires strong pacing and an understanding of three-act structure. Great commercial fiction –  those books that you devour in a weekend no matter the size – has both high-level prose and genre-level pacing.

A lot of books, however, lean toward one or the other.  Either you get a book that is beautifully written but slow or you get a fast-paced story that skimps on nuance and all the other wonderful writing Easter eggs we’ve come to love. 

Riley comes from the world of historical romance.  As such, she knows how to pace.  Every chapter ended with a hook that kept you reading, and she keeps the tension level high throughout.  She was also wise enough to take her time revising this book leading to layers and layers of depth to every scene.

I really liked this book a lot.

This is the second historical I’ve read this year that was inspired by a successful black woman of the past, the first being The Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson.  This has me wondering: how many other women have had their stories erased by history?. If someone like Dorothy Kirwan Thomas can slip through the cracks, what else are we missing?

Do yourself a favor and grab Island Queen.  You won’t regret it.

Renee Ryan and I discussed Island Queen on Off the Shelf with book reviewer and editor Angela Anderson. You can watch the interview here.

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