A Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra Rowland

I’ll be honest: I first noticed A Conspiracy of Truths because of its gorgeous cover. And because of that gorgeous cover, I waited nine months after release date to actually get it — I wanted the paperback specifically. I’m glad I waited so long, because boy is the outside gorgeous; but I’m sad I waited so long because boy is the inside even better.

A Conspiracy of Truths is about… well, lies, mostly. Or rather, truths that seem like lies and lies that seem like truths, and the man who spins them all. In less poetic terms: Chant is an old travelling storyteller who gets falsely accused of being a witch while he and his apprentice are passing through a town. He gets a trial, in which he tries to talk his way out of being executed for witchcraft. Instead he talks himself into being accused of being a spy. Then he continues to try to talk himself out of that. It goes similarly well.

Simply put: I really, really liked this book. I think I expected something far more litfic-y, and A Conspiracy of Truths does have a lot to say about the power of stories and how humans use them to make sense of the world, as well as how fragile those shared stories can be. But also it’s about a grumpy old man who’s stuck in various types of cells for most of the book, trying to bullshit his way out, with varying degrees of success. Chant’s stories and plots get pretty audacious — and snowball into something that shakes the whole nation. I giggled my way through most of it, and stared in delighted horror at the rest.

Chant is a fantastic character. He’s cynical and grumpy, but underneath that he also has a deep appreciation for humanity as a whole. His relationship with his apprentice Ylfing was my favourite part. They’re like an uncle and beloved nephew, at times fretting over each other and at times completely exasperated with the other. It’s pretty rare, and wonderful, to see such a strong cross-generational bond. Ylfing himself is wonderful too: a much sweeter, more optimistic, and completely “boy-crazy” (per Chant) foil to his master. Chant’s publicly-appointed advocate Consanza is another highlight: she’s just as cynical as him and pretty bored by the trial in general. Watching them butt heads made me grin every time.

I also really loved how much Rowland ran with the concept of storytelling. The book is literally being told by Chant and he’s not necessarily the most reliable narrator. For example, he tends to brush off any time his heart is pounding from worry or fear as oh, just him having a small heart attack probably, it happens. It’s exasperating in a really fun way. There’s also a lot of stories-within-stories: Chant and the others spins short tales to make a “moral” point, to convince the person listening to do something, or just to pass the time. The listener may interrupt the story with their own asides and the storyteller might not get to finish the tale. In one memorable case the storyteller simply forgot the ending.

This results in a fantastic juxtaposition: Chant’s own world is limited to his small cell, but as most of the stories take place “a long time ago and half the world away” the book’s world feels large. Naturally Nuryevet, the country Chant is imprisoned in, is the most developed. It took a bit of time for the political factions and alliances in Nuryevet to click, but it’s nothing too intricate. In general, Nuryevens are hilariously/depressingly obsessed with bureaucracy. Their marriage is an “amalgamation of every kind of legal partnership”, and may include love and sex or “just” friendship, business, joint ownership of property, etc. Poly marriages are exceedingly common; nobody cares about the details as long as the paperwork is filed correctly. Again, it’s an interesting type of relationship you don’t see that often in fantasy books.

(Side-note: to go with their love of bureaucracy, Nuryevens have a Slavic-based naming system, complete with patronymics and matronymics, which I freaking adored.)

All right, I’ll leave off with the gushing here. In short, as I said, I don’t really regret waiting for the paperback. On the other hand, the sequel A Choir of Lies is coming out next month and I know that one I’ll have to get on day one.

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