A Choir of Lies, by Alexanda Rowland

Last fall, I had the great pleasure of reading Alexandra Rowland’s A Conspiracy of Truths. This incredible novel felt like it was written just for me, because the main character was such a knowledgeable storyteller that he was able to weaponize it to escape mortal peril. Rowland’s fantasy meditation on the power of story continues in A Choir of Lies. Here, the apprentice of the protagonist of A Conspiracy of Truths, has been attempting to make his way in the wide world as a Chant. Being a professional wandering storyteller is a hard enough job, but our young Chant is suffering intense grief, feelings of betrayal, and a hefty dollop of existential crisis.

In the world Rowland created, being a Chant is a holy calling. They wander from place to place, collecting and telling stories. There are rituals that must be performed before an apprentice gives up their name and becomes a nameless Chant. But our Chant is on the cusp of giving it all up and taking back his name. After three years of wandering, he fetches up in Heyrland, a city that looks and feels a lot like our Amsterdam at the beginning of its golden age of trade. Instead of telling stories for room and board, Chant takes a job as a translator for a wealthy merchant. Once this merchant figures out that their new translator has Chant-training, they tell chant to start hyping their newest import: bulbs for a plant that can grow in the dark (which sort of makes up for the fact that it smells like rotting meat). If you haven’t figured it out by now, a significant part of the plot mirrors the economic bubble now known as Tulip Mania.

As Chant (mostly unwittingly, before he figures things out) participates in some seriously misguided business, he is also struggling with his calling. His master-Chant put him through hell and he clearly hasn’t come to terms with it. (Read A Conspiracy of Truths.) When he encounters another Chant in Heyrland, a woman with very different ideas of what it means to be a Chant, it throws him even further into mental and emotional crisis. The early chapters of A Choir of Lies, before Chant has an epiphany and (not coincidentally) figures out that the cute merchant-banker guy is flirting with him, are a little rough. Chant wallows in his feelings instead of making actual progress. Once you get past those first chapters and the plot really kicks off, this book turns into a great read.

Normally, I don’t recommend getting a particular format. It usually doesn’t matter if you get a book in print or electronically or as an audiobook. I have to say, though, having read this as an electronic advanced reader copy, I recommend getting this book in print. The story is “written” as a manuscript Chant writes about his time in the Heyrland, then gives to Mistress Chant to read. Mistress Chant’s marginalia appears as footnotes as she comments on (and swears at and corrects) Chant’s autobiography. In an electronic book, footnotes are links. Flipping back and forth between the main text and the footnotes by trying to hit a number with my fingers was really irritating—especially when Mistress Chant is arguing with almost every line. Get this as a print book.

I adore Rowland’s Chant novels. The world-building is incredibly rich and vibrant. I loved the gender- and sexuality diverse language and culture of Heyrland. (There are grammatical forms for five genders!) The characters are beautiful psychological portraits. There are no heroes or villains in this book; it’s all just a bunch of humans running around doing very human things. Above all, I am completely hooked on all the metanarrative elements and themes. Seriously, these books are catnip for my bookish heart.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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