A Choir of Lies, Alexandra Rowland (Saga 978-1-53441-283-5, $26.99, 464pp, hc) September 2019.
“Stories are powerful. Stories are arrows and swords. Written down, they become a copy of a mind. These words right now, on the pages under my hands – what am I doing with them? What power have I put into this? Is it safe? Is it right?” So asks Ylfing, one of the dual narrators of A Choir of Lies, the second novel in Alexandra Rowland’s remarkable series, and he asks for the author as well as himself. Rowland demonstrated, in A Conspiracy of Truths, just how much mightier the pen can be than the sword. In A Choir of Lies, their craft delves deeper into the philosophy of storytelling, the inherent unreliability of any one view of the world, and the strength of both grief and love to shape a life.
The plot of A Choir of Lies picks up about three years after A Conspiracy of Truths left off. Our main narrator, Ylfing, was previously known as an apprentice Chant, part of a line of storytellers wandering the world. Ylfing has been coping with abandonment and profound uncertainty about his profession. He hooks up with a consummate businesswoman, Sterre, who convinces him to use his storytelling gift to sell flower bulbs. The market for them becomes inflated beyond anyone’s expectations, like tulip mania in 17th-century Holland, or the American real estate bubble of the 2000s. Meanwhile, Ylfing falls in love with Orfeo, a foreign merchant, who offers him an avenue out of Chanting, about which he is uncertain after the local arrival of another Chant. The danger of the story Ylfing has been telling about the flowers becomes large enough to swallow him and Sterre alike, and he determines that only through a new medium of storytelling can he avert the kind of disaster his master-Chant caused three years earlier.
These books are unusually sophisticated in both idea and execution. As plots go, this one has a reliable rise and fall; however, it unfolds not just through Ylfing but also with copious (nearly 400) footnotes narrated by a very different personality. The footnoter is abrasive, imperious, and foul-mouthed. The reader’s impression of her (and of Ylfing) fluctuates dramatically across the book: both are right, and both are wrong. The weaknesses of each narrator become evident to the reader, if not to themselves. They each narrate the same event differently, based on how much hostility each perceives, and their relationship oozes missed opportunities and crossed purposes. They take opposing positions on a classical dilemma, rare in 21st-century discourse: whether recording stories is good or bad. Ylfing is on the side of the future, but the footnoter disagrees: “Words on a page are dead things, like the corpses of butterflies.”
Both narrators engage in metatextual commentary on the power and purpose of stories, since stories are their profession. As Ylfing puts it, “[Stories] could be like rust overtaking a metal tool, or like a trickle of water cutting through rock, or an invasive plant devouring the landscape before my eyes.” Much later, he explains that stories are, in fact, elemental to the fabric of society:
Sometimes they’re small ones… Sometimes they’re bigger ones, like manners and laws and the importance of keeping promises. We tell each other these stories, and then we all have a rough idea of how to behave to each other in order to get along. These are a crucial part of why it’s possible for people to live all crammed in on top of each other like this without murdering each other.
Social interdependence is strong medicine in this novel, but then, so is love. Ylfing’s romance with Orfeo, who describes himself at first as a rake and then seems to reform – though the footnoter never trusts this move – is mature, not at all like the entertaining serial infatuations of A Conspiracy of Truths. Orfeo is the tonic Ylfing needs to redirect his energy from grief into action. The conclusion of the affair is also mature, if not entirely trustworthy. But then, nothing about the narration of A Choir of Lies is entirely trustworthy.
This review’s emphasis on Rowland’s teasing metatextual moves and the inner meanings of storytelling is not the only angle on the book. Readers who love fully embellished fantasy universes, queer romance, or character arcs leading to wisdom but not joy will also find a lot to keep them occupied in A Choir of Lies. The characters are vibrant and multidimensional, and it’s a beautifully written, highly detailed novel, rich in temptation, human error, and moral choices. If Rowland keeps turning them out like this, they’re in a fair way to be the finest Chant in all the land.
Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (Kernpunkt Press), an SPD fiction bestseller. Her work as a book critic has appeared in The Washington Post, The Believer, The Guardian, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.
This review and more like it in the November 2019 issue of Locus.
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