A Choir of Lies: A book I enjoy thinking about

A Choir of Lies by Alexandra Rowland science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsA Choir of Lies by Alexandra Rowland science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsA Choir of Lies by Alexandra Rowland

I enjoy thinking about A Choir of Lies, Alexandra Rowland’s 2019 novel, more than I enjoyed reading it. I usually like stories where the writer plays textual games, whether the story is epistolary, based on ephemera, uses marginalia, or even footnotes, upon which A Choir of Lies relies. I like stories that explore the nature of stories, and storytellers, which A Choir of Lies does. Rowland employs the clever turn of phrase and creates interesting characters. Still, with a 450-page book, in the first 171 pages nothing much happens. Reading the numerous footnotes against that backdrop was exhausting.

A Choir of Lies follows Ylfing, who was apprenticed to the Master Chant, the main character of the first book, A Conspiracy of Truths. Since those events, Ylfing has “sunk his homeland beneath the waves,” become a full-fledged Chant (which means being addressed only as Chant), and left his master. Chants gather and share stories and songs from all the different countries and cultures.

Ylfing comes to a country that is an analog for the Netherlands, and is taken up by a merchant and speculator who has an idea to increase her wealth by creating an investment bubble based closely on the Dutch Tulip Mania of the 18th century. Ylfing vaguely knows that helping to drive up demand is wrong, but he is still struggling with grief and disillusionment from the events of the first book. He spends a lot of time dithering, when he isn’t describing the city he’s living in with profuse detail. In the marketplace, Ylfing meets another Chant, a woman who he addresses as Mistress Chant. She is appalled at his beliefs and his description of the mission of a Chant, and they frequently argue. Interacting with her, though, does provide some insight which helps  Ylfing in the end.

The book is a first-person written narrative that has been given to a future reader; the reader is commenting via footnotes, and at a couple of points breaking into the narrative themselves to add their version of events. We get more background on the Chants and their history, and their god Shugwa. As with A Conspiracy of Truths, there is a little bit of magic but it plays a small and subtle role in the book.

I think my difficulties with the book came from two sources. The structure itself, with a very long slow burn, culminating in a rushed ramp-up to a climax, bogged me down. More importantly, Ylfing’s stakes aren’t very high. In Book One, whether we liked him or not, we knew the irascible elderly Chant who had been imprisoned for witchcraft and treason had a lot riding on his actions — his life. Ylfing, although he is sad and confused, really has very little to lose. Secondly, the attempt to correct the investment-bubble scheme he is part of seems to work quickly and easily. At first Ylfing fails in his attempts to start putting things right, but then he comes up with a second idea and it works immediately. I also could not quite suspend disbelief enough to accept that the speculator character would agree to this, and that this fix would work economically. Maybe I’m just not enough of an optimist, but there seemed to be a lot of handwaving going on here.

There are enjoyable moments throughout the book. The stories Ylfing tells relate more directly to the present-tense happenings of the story than they did in the first book. Mistress Chant’s fits of envy and indignation when the nature of Ylfing’s dreams become clear was refreshing. I enjoyed Ylfing’s love affair with Orfeo. The description of the storm and the flooding caused by a broken dike was intense and dramatic.

Writers and editors will enjoy a few of the in-jokes in the beginning, as when the future reader announces that they’ve burned three chapters “because nothing important happened.”

I like Rowland’s world and the genesis of the Chants, but while I enjoyed A Choir of Lies, it fell short while I was reading it. What seems to be happening with the Chants, at least with our main character, is an evolution of the role of Chant, and a change in the nature of stories, and that leaves me with a lot to think about. Read it for the ideas and the lovely, lively prose.

Published in 2019. The follow-up to the fan-favorite A Conspiracy of Truths “reveals the author’s stunning prose, beautiful worldbuilding, and emotional detail,” (Library Journal, starred review) and serves as a timely reminder that the words we wield can bring destruction—or salvation. Three years ago, Yfling watched his master-Chant tear a nation apart with nothing but the words on his tongue. Now Ylfing is all alone in a new realm, brokenhearted and grieving—but a Chant in his own right, employed as a translator to a wealthy merchant of luxury goods, Sterre de Waeyer. But Ylfing has been struggling to come to terms with what his master did, with the audiences he’s been alienated from, and with the stories he can no longer trust himself to tell. That is, until Ylfing’s employer finds out what he is, what he does, and what he knows. At Sterre’s command, Ylfing begins telling stories once more, fanning the city into a mania for a few shipments of an exotic flower. The prices skyrocket, but when disaster looms, Ylfing must face what he has done and decide who he wants to be: a man who walks away and lets the city shatter, as his master did? Or will he embrace the power of stories to save ten thousand lives? In this “wise, moving, and captivating adventure” (Publishers Weekly, starred review), a young storyteller must embrace his own skills and discover that a story can be powerful enough to bring a nation to its knees, certainly. But in the right hands, a story can rebuild a broken dam, keep the floodwaters back, and save a life—or thousands of lives.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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