A Review of “Island Queen” by Vanessa Riley

Hello, fellow bookworms! I’m back after a much-needed break from blogging. I’ve been so busy lately with grad school, work, and maintaining a video game YouTube channel with my husband, I haven’t had much time to read or blog about reading. I hope to slowly get back into it.

During this little break, I did manage to finish “Island Queen” by Vanessa Riley.

I randomly bought this book a month or so ago at Barnes and Noble and decided to bring it along with me for our trip to Chicago. The cover art is beautiful and looked so interesting, so I picked it up. This book is historical fiction but is based on the life of Dorothy “Dolly” Kirwan Thomas, a woman born into slavery in the West Indies who eventually frees herself and her family to become a successful entrepreneur. I rarely read historical novels and don’t know much about slavery in the West Indies, so I thought it was worth a shot. I will say, at first, I really enjoyed this book’s short chapters and how easy it was to read. But about 200 pages in, I realized this book is more about Dorothy’s lovers than anything else.

Here is the book’s description:

“A remarkable, sweeping historical novel based on the incredible true life story of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, a free woman of color who rose from slavery to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful landowners in the colonial West Indies. 

“Born into slavery on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat, Doll bought her freedom—and that of her sister and her mother—from her Irish planter father and built a legacy of wealth and power as an entrepreneur, merchant, hotelier, and planter that extended from the marketplaces and sugar plantations of Dominica and Barbados to a glittering luxury hotel in Demerara on the South American continent.

“Vanessa Riley’s novel brings Doll to vivid life as she rises above the harsh realities of slavery and colonialism by working the system and leveraging the competing attentions of the men in her life: a restless shipping merchant, Joseph Thomas; a wealthy planter hiding a secret, John Coseveldt Cells; and a roguish naval captain who will later become King William IV of England.

“From the bustling port cities of the West Indies to the forbidding drawing rooms of London’s elite, Island Queen is a sweeping epic of an adventurer and a survivor who answered to no one but herself as she rose to power and autonomy against all odds, defying rigid eighteenth-century morality and the oppression of women as well as people of color. It is an unforgettable portrait of a true larger-than-life woman who made her mark on history.”

My Verdict: “Island Queen” by Vanessa Riley is Not Worth Reading

Nearly 600 pages, I felt this book could have easily been cut in half. I hate to say that I didn’t enjoy this book because I believe the real-life Dorothy Kirwan Thomas probably deserves a movie for how much she accomplished. But this book missed the mark for me. Much of it seemed like filler, not really going into detail about how she became so successful. A lot of it is dialogue between her many lovers who are always declaring their love for her, so much that it became nauseating to read. Overall, I’m rating this book 2 stars.

Maybe I was viewing this book through the lens of slavery in the United States, but it was hard for me to grasp how Dolly viewed the white men in this book. A dark-skinned “mulatto”, Dolly was the product of her enslaved mother and Irish plantation-owner master (whom she called “Pa”). Despite being born into slavery, Dolly’s four or five baby daddies are all white. Her first two children are the product of being raped by her half brother Nicholas, which was so heartbreaking to read about. But Dolly has four (or five, I lost count) other suitors, one of which turns out to be a prince.

Knowing about how brutal slavery in the US was, I had trouble believing that Dolly could so easily become a “concubine wife” for any man. She did debate throughout the book but usually gave in to her love interests and ended up having 11 children total. It was a lot of names to keep up with, and I ended up having to turn back and try to remember who was the father for each child. Each love interest also became so entranced by her dark skin and beauty, it came across as degrading to me. (The prince called her his “black beauty.”) I felt like only one or two of them truly loved her, while the others just wanted sex. I don’t know why she gave into them! It was really frustrating to read, and much of the book focused on this drama.

From the book I gathered that Dolly was very good at keeping house, and she started a housekeeping business by training other women and hiring them out to other plantation owners. It wasn’t clear exactly how or why the masters would pay for a housekeeper if they already owned slaves, but maybe I missed that part. Maybe she only hired her trainees out to people who did not own slaves? I’m not sure. But all of her patrons were very wealthy. The book also briefly mentions how she got by working as a prostitute after running away from her father’s plantation, but it does not go into detail. This was an interesting tidbit that I would have liked to learn more about. How did she get into it and how did she get out of it?

Additionally, the book is told in very brief chapters that jump from different time periods and different settings throughout Dolly’s life, and I really had to pay attention on what year I was reading about. To be honest, I lost track of her age throughout the book. Plus, she moved around between countries often, and that was another thing to keep track of. At the end of the book, there is an extensive author’s note where Riley reveals facts about Dolly’s life and how she wrote the book based on that. But much of the book is told through dialogue between characters, and I felt like there was no way Riley could have known what Dolly’s conversations were throughout her life, and so I felt the author’s note only made me realize how the book could have been written differently. The ending of the book also was forgettable, and I felt like the book could have been stronger had the author trimmed it down.

Overall, I’m glad I read the book if only to learn about a historical figure I had never heard of before. You might like this book if you love lengthy novels and if you are a fan of historical fiction based on real events. The Barnes and Noble website lists the following books as similar to this one: “Dark Tides” by Philippa Gregory, “A Woman of Intelligence” by Karin Tanabe, “Summer on the Bluffs” by Sunny Hostin, and “The Ladies of the Secret Circus” by Constance Sayers.

If you’ve read this book, what did you think of it? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Feel free to leave a comment! As always, thanks for reading.

3 thoughts on “A Review of “Island Queen” by Vanessa Riley”

  1. Welcome back! This sounds like a good book that missed being a good book somehow. It sounds really confusing (I mean, I don’t read historical fiction much but you’d expect to be led through and understand things, I think) and also a bit iffy on the sexual/racial politics, with perhaps not enough balancing commentary by the author. Well done for getting through such a big book! (Mind you, I’m about to start reading Roots and my edition is 888 pages!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it really could have been a better book, but I just didn’t think it was worth slogging through 600 pages of it. I wish I had liked it more considering it was about a historical figure, but I was just so disappointed in it. Roots! Oh wow! I can’t say I have read that! Good luck with it! Thanks for reading! I need to catch up on your blog posts!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve wanted to read Roots for a while and then a friend is doing a 1976 challenge so it all came out. I’m reading it with a group of people – alongside me I have a Canadian, an Australian and an American living in the UK! Hope you catch a few of my posts as I’ve read and acquired some good ones recently.


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