Alexandra Rowland’s first novel A Conspiracy of Truths, published in 2018, features a fleshed-out fantasy world with an unusual political system and a halfway convincing economy, a multitude of queer characters and characters of colour whose queerness and nonwhiteness go unremarked-upon, an unreliable narrator and a moderately interesting narrative structure featuring a number of interpolated stories. Nevertheless, it doesn’t quite work.
Our protagonist is Chant, an itinerant storyteller who’s arrested for witchcraft while journeying with his apprentice in the rather dismal land of Nuryevet. When he inadvertently admits his friendship with a renowned pirate and spy executed in Nuryevet twenty years previously, espionage is added to the list of his charges, instantly making him an object of interest to the country’s rulers. Here’s where that unusual political system comes in, by the way: Nuryevet is ruled by five democratically elected Primes who head up the departments of Law, Justice, Order (who enforce the laws), Pattern (who oversee foreign affairs and spycraft) and Coin. So: Chant finds himself of interest to both Pattern and Justice, and, with the help of his ambitious advocate Consanza, his trusting apprentice Ylfing and Ylfing’s revolutionary boyfriend Ivo, he sets out to play them off against each other, hoping to make himself useful enough to stave off an impending death sentence.
Chant is, as I’ve said, an unreliable narrator. Posing as a crotchety old man who doesn’t need anyone else, he tells himself and the reader small, obvious lies throughout the text: his eyesight isn’t failing, his hearing is just as good as it ever was, he’s not at all fond of Ylfing. While on a paragraph level these remarks contribute to the wry, humorous tone of the novel, their larger effect is to cast doubt on Chant’s motivations; or, rather, since his motivations are crystal-clear throughout, on whether he has the right to do what he’s doing. It becomes clear as the story progresses that Chant’s actions are about to destabilise the country’s political order altogether, and in fact he begins explicitly trying to make that happen – all in an attempt to save his own skin and escape Nuryevet. His excuse, which he repeats often to Ylfing and to himself, is that Nuryevet is doomed anyway, with corruption rife among the Primes and the courts, a decadent middle class more interested in getting ahead than in bettering their society, and astronomical taxes impoverishing the rural working class. Through her ironisation of Chant’s narration, Rowland asks us to consider whether any of that excuses Chant’s cynical destruction of a country – which eventually leads to misery and death for many of those in Nuryevet’s capital Vsila – for his own apolitical ends. My personal view of what the answer to that question is meant to be is admittedly heavily influenced by the novel’s sequel, A Choir of Lies, in which we get some ofYlfing’s perspective on events – but I would argue that we see the culmination of Chant’s realpolitik at the end of the novel, when Chant inflicts a massive personal betrayal on his loyal apprentice.
This is all interesting stuff, especially given current concerns around foreign influence in elections and the general political landscape in the West. And yet I found the novel resisting me as I read it; I kept feeling the urge to put it down and do something more interesting, or at least more immediately gratifying. A big part of this is the novel’s voice, which is strongly contemporary despite the late medieval setting (Nuryevet has a middle class but no heavy industry, plus the culture is heavily superstitious):
They’re like boots, stories. Some fit you just right, some keep your toes warm in the winter, and some of ’em rub at you until you’re sore and blistered.
This voice has a twofold effect: it in theory helps increase our understanding of and empathy for characters in historic settings by conveying to the reader that these characters are just like us (which they aren’t); and in this novel in particular it establishes Chant as an outsider observing and commenting on Nuryeven politics (although it has to be said that the Nuryevet characters talk like this too). I find, though, that it tends to distance me from the characters rather than increase my empathy for them: the text isn’t allowing me access to how a medieval-type person understands a cultural milieu that is very different from our own. I also found that the interpolated stories – some told by Chant, some by other characters – tend to interrupt the flow of the narrative more than they enrich the novel’s world: again, they distanced me from the characters and the story, working as a distraction from what the novel’s trying to say rather than an amplification of it.
It is possible to conceive of a novel that successfully puts a contemporary voice into historical fantasy: Steven Brust is quite good at this, partly because his novels don’t take themselves very seriously, and partly because the dissonance between the fantastical setting and his protagonist’s irreverence is part of a larger point he’s making about social class. Rowland is arguably doing more – or at least attempting more – with their novel, but the fact that they’re not leveraging their protagonist’s contemporary voice as much as they could means that A Conspiracy of Truths is less successful, for this reader at least. It’s an interesting novel. But I don’t feel tempted to read it again.