Chant (a title, not a name, he is quick to tell us) is not having a good day when we meet him at the outset of A Conspiracy of Truths, by Alexandra Rowland. He’s hungry. He’s in a foreign country. His apprentice is missing. Worst of all, he’s on trial for being a blackwitch and the court is a Kafkaeque nightmare (or it would be if Kafka existed in this fantasy world). Just as he completes his apology for committing brazen impertinence in front of the court, Chant suddenly finds himself on trial for being a blackwitch and a spy. With a death sentence hanging over his head, how on earth is a humble storyteller to get out of this one? He does it by telling stories. It’s what a Chant does, after all.
A Conspiracy of Truths, a wonderfully diverse fantasy novel, turns Scheherezade on its head in more ways than one. A Chant isn’t just a storyteller, we learn. A Chant studies the construction and effects of stories as much as they collect them from the nations they visit in their lifelong wanderings. When our Chant sets his mind to it, he can use a story to stretch out his life a little more and earn himself a few creature comforts for his cell. But the stories he tells to the paranoid elected leaders of Nuryevet result in the collapse of what turns out to be a corrupt regime. Before long, our irascible protagonist is smack in the middle of murderous factions scrabbling for power in a growing vacuum. Oops.
Chant is not an innocent. He knows that stories can have strong effects on the listener. After all, he dips into his repertoire to manipulate the Queen of Order into staunchly and honorably defending the old ways of doing things even though he knows she’s facing up against a pack of unscrupulous political weasels. Perhaps he might be forgiven for making up a detail or two to save his life. After all, how could Chant know that telling the Queen of Order that one of her rivals is hosting a blackwitch would result in her violently taking that rival out of the equation? And how could Chant know that his stories would cause a revolution? Chant protests that Nuryevet’s government was sick and would have collapsed anyway after he learns how far things have gone. His good-hearted apprentice and his frequently exasperated advocate would say that all this is Chant’s fault. Chant, though he has some regrets, would argue that he’s just a storyteller. It’s not up to him what the audience does.
Over and over, this book asks subtle questions about the ethics of truth, lies, propaganda, and stories. Knowing that listeners can be swayed by the right story, should the storyteller ever use their powers for personal gain? Should a storyteller make amends if things go awry? I love thinking about these kinds of ethical snarls, especially when they involve stories. Even readers who aren’t keen on ethics will enjoy themselves. A Conspiracy of Truths is packed with stories from Chant about the marvels and strange customs of what sounds like a wildly diverse world. Chant’s stories are well worth the price of entry and left me wanting more.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 23 October 2018.