At first, Conquest by John Connolly and Jennifer Ridyard reminded me of a blend of Gene Roddenberry’s Earth; the Final Conflict, and the history of the Roman Empire. The Roddenberry sense comes from the descriptions of the aliens who conquer Earth; tall, slender and graceful, some with shaven heads, and a melodic, trilling name, the Illyri. By the second chapter, though, I felt firmly grounded in Roman conquest, as Andrus, the Illyri governor of Earth, and his primary general discuss an attack at an Illyri fortress, presumably by the human Resistance. The “Roman outpost” feeling is helped along by the settings, first Edinburgh and later the Scottish Highlands.
The Illyri adults we follow in this YA adventure have a nagging sense of something rotten back at the heart of the Empire, through the wormhole on the home planet of Illyr. Certainly balances of power have shifted over the past few years, but there is something even darker and more sinister as play. Four young people, two human resistance fighters and two sheltered Illyri daughters, will uncover that secret as the story progresses.
Conquest seems to start slowly, even if there is a bombing and a military suicide in the second chapter. Syl, Andrus’s daughter, is introduced then too, but we are about forty pages in before the story takes off. Syl and her friend Ani sneak out of the heavily guarded Edinburgh castle on Syl’s birthday, disguised as humans. They meet two human boys and narrowly escape becoming the victims of another bombing. The two boys, Paul and his brother Steven, insist to the shaken girls that the human Resistance did not plant the bombs. They should know; both boys are Resistance fighters. Paul and Steven are on a mission, and make a disturbing find. Meanwhile, Syl and Ani, returning to the castle, learn that powerful visitors have come from the home-world, including Syrene, the Archmage of the powerful and secretive Nairene Sisterhood. Andrus does not trust the Sisterhood or those who support it, including the Illyrian Grand Consul, Gradus:
“But Gradus and his kind are so convinced of their superiority that every race but our own appears inconsequential to them. He has not even troubled himself to visit Earth. He sits in the palace of a dead king, listening to the whispering of witches.”
When Peter and Steven are captured and framed for the bombings, Syl risks her life and standing helping them escape. From there, the story unfolds and grows more complex, as the reader learns more about Governor Andrus’s enemies, what certain Illyri are really doing to humans, and the natures of both Illyri and humans. The villains are truly villainous, and the heroes have secrets. My favorite character is Meia, Governor Andrus’s primary intelligence operative. Meia’s origins are unusual, and her motives go beyond mere loyalty to the Governor.
For YA, this is a pretty long book, about 400 pages, but after the opening the pace never flagged. Things look bleak for our young heroes at the end, but there is still plenty of hope, as they pledge to carry the battle to the enemy. With Syl, in particular, we see character growth as she explores her own abilities and makes adult sacrifices in order to do the right thing.
In the quiet moments, the books makes interesting comments about people, like this observation about Steven:
Steven would never be a leader, and he did not want to lead, but he would grow up to be the kind of man leaders upon whom leaders relied.
Conquest opens the way for a thoughtful discussion about empires and conquest, but it’s also a cracking good story, with plenty in place for the next book in the series. Connolly and Ridyard manage to create a large canvas and still give us a personal story with lots of action and suspense. It’s a good one.