Fiction Reviews

Queen High

(2022) C. J. Carey, Quercus, £14.99, trdpbk, iv + 414pp, ISBN 978-1-529-41204-8


This is the second novel by Carey set in an alternate British history. Like the first novel, Widowland, this is set in a Britain where in 1940 the British government entered an Alliance which led to the invasion of Britain by Germany, the removal of King George VI and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret and the creation of a Protectorate.

In the place of the deposed royals was placed Edward Windsor and his American wife Wallis Simpson, figureheads of royalty and yet powerless puppets of the Protectorate.

Now it is 1955. This Britain is a place of segregation in a “divide and rule” scenario. All women are in thrall to the men of the Protectorate, in a caste system based on that of India. As such there are six classes for women. The highest were popularly called Gelis, after the woman most loved by the Leader, his niece Geli. Klaras – after the leader’s mother – were fertile women who had produced, ideally, four or more children; Lenis were professional women, such as office workers and actresses, after Leni Riefenstahl, the regime’s chief film director. Paulas, named after the Leader’s sister, were in the caring professions, teachers and nurses, whereas Magdas were lowly shop and factory employees and Gretls did the grunt work as kitchen and domestic staff. There were a range of other designations – for nuns, disabled mothers and midwives – but right at the bottom of the hierarchy came Friedas. It was a diminutive of the nickname Friedhofefrauen – cemetery women. These were widows and spinsters over fifty who had no children, no reproductive purpose and who did not serve a man. There was nothing lower than the Friedas, who have been placed in a ghetto area known as Widowland.

It is now 1955, two years since the killing of the Leader, assassinated in the Oxford Bodleian. As before, the story is focused upon Rose Ransom, a Geli who was involved in the assassination of the Leader in the first book. Rose is lucky to be alive as she was involved in the Leader’s death, but has been miraculously overlooked. She still works at the Culture Ministry where her work now focuses on editing Poetry, a form of writing that is felt to transmit subversive meanings, emotions and signals that cannot be controlled. Therefore, all Poetry is banned and Rose is appointed a Poet Hunter, someone who takes traditional poetry and rewrites it into matter more conducive to the new regime.

In Queen High, the rule of the Protectorate has continued to be reinforced. Now, more than ever, the Protectorate is a place of surveillance and isolation – a land of spies. A government propaganda drive to promote positive images of women has just been announced as for the first time in their rule a visit of the American President Eisenhower has been announced and the Alliance wishes to show England in a good light.

With Edward having died in 1954, Queen Wallis has a symbolic position as the last Queen of England. It is Wallis who will be spearheading the campaign, and Rose has been tasked by the Alliance Security Office with visiting her to explain the plan. When Rose arrives at the palace, rather than find an irrational and confused person, Rose finds Wallis surprisingly lucid, candid and desperate to return to America and enjoy the liberty of her homeland. She claims she has a secret document so explosive that it will blow the Protectorate apart, so will she be able to give the Americans her evidence before her secret is discovered and pull the trigger on the Alliance?

A Queen High is one solitary queen in a lousy hand.
A lonely queen all on her own.
Some people call that hand a Nothing. Or a No Pair.
Seems kind of appropriate now.

There’s a lot in Queen High to like, especially if you’ve read the previous novel. What works best for me here is the wonderful little details that create a realistic scenario within which for the characters to move. Whether it be the Rudolf Hess Airport on the outskirts of London, the amended inscription on the Cenotaph, or the designs by Albert Speer of a new London renamed (unsurprisingly) Londinium, this setting feels real. Seeing both London and Berlin, now Germania, in this new world was fascinating.

We are, of course, seeing the ruling party strengthen its hold on the occupied Anglo-Saxon Territories. Fifteen years on after the occupation, most music and books are banned, unless produced or sanctioned by Content Providers. The Aesthetic Hygiene Squad has been created to sanitise public work, which seems to still involve book-burning. There are Purity Drives, arresting fallen women who are trialled in public People’s Courts. Food is still rationed, unless you are one of the upper classes. Foreign communication is pretty much banned, with magazines and news from other non-German territories highly restricted. Rules are revised often on a weekly basis – at one point the Protector bans women from having their hair braided, as such a style can be used to send secret messages to others. All of this seems plausible in this Orwellian-style state, although there were times when I felt that some points are made a little too forcefully. I found the redefining of the BBC’s motto of “Inform, Educate, Entertain” to “Inform, Educate, Eradicate” something reminiscent of the Daleks.

What is also less credible are the inconsistent plot points that happen within this. It did rather dent my suspension of disbelief that Rose manages, despite being one of the few survivors of the assassination in 1953, to not only hold down a super-secret job in this novel, but be given one which is perhaps more important than it was before. Even the author admits, through Rose, that she is amazed by the unlikeliness of this happening, but attempts to explain this in an unconvincing plot twist and an unlikely coincidence.

And this is not the only one. I was further surprised at how quick Rose manages to go from being office lackey to confidant of the Queen, flying with her in her private plane to Berlin. To cap it all, there is also one ginormous plot-twist at the end, which I won’t reveal here but of which its convenience may make or break the book for some readers.

And yet despite all this, I enjoyed the story a great deal. There’s some nice literary references throughout, and the expositions on the importance of poetry, like the discourses on the importance of literature in the last book, may ring true with many readers. There is (of course!) an ending which leaves it all open for another novel which, despite these issues, I will be interested to read.

All in all then, Queen High is a book with an unusual setting that may entertain very much, provided you don’t think about the plot too carefully. It is undoubtedly an entertaining read, and the pages turn easily, even though at no point did I really feel that Rose was in great peril. Lots of marks for effort, even if it is not quite the success I had hoped it was going to be.

Mark Yon


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