Review: Alexandra Rowland, A Conspiracy of Truths

I really thought I was going to like this.

I can’t remember how A Conspiracy of Truths landed on my TBR pile — possibly through my online trivia league’s recent SFF trivia-fest — but it looked like my jam, to the hilt. In any case, a few months ago I went through the old TBR pile looking for a choice for book club, and read the opening sampled on Amazon, and thought: well, it’s more than 400 pages, but it’s got a snappy voice and a cantankerous POV character who’s in a bit of a pickle. Sold!

Incautiously, I announced it as my book club choice before reading it.

As it turned out, not even the most catholic-minded, voracious reader in my group finished it. I finished it for two reasons: 1) I had to lead the book-club discussion, and 2) I felt a driving need to be absolutely certain this story didn’t unravel to something I would have been sorry to miss.

Spoiler: it didn’t.

I gave it three stars on Goodreads, because, well, it’s better-written than Jodi Taylor’s One Damned Thing After Another and I gave three stars to it. But whereas I finished Taylor’s book thinking: “Well, that was complete junk food, but I had fun consuming it,” I finished this book thinking I’d just read a Serious Tale that actually roused me to resentment.

This takes some doing. My approach to reading is generally the Golden Rule approach: I do unto the author as I would have them do unto me. So when I pick up a book, I give it all the generous credulity at my disposal, which often takes little effort, and save the critical eye for looking back from the end. Sometimes I don’t even notice that I didn’t like the book until like two days after I finish it.

But here’s the premise of this book. (Spoilers follow.) An old wanderer from a long tradition of powerful storytellers enters (with an apprentice) a cold, backward, Slavic-coded country and gets arrested for witchcraft, which makes him by their laws an enemy of the state. He uses the tales he tells from his jail cell to turn his imprisonment to his advantage in a complicated intrigue. Scheherazade meets The Thief — right?

Nope. Presented with what is a legitimate threat to his life and freedom (and with the knowledge that a similar fate came to someone he knew as a friend), the nameless Chant emulates the capricious, sadistic god his storyteller forebears once worshiped, and plays the women leaders of the country against one another, with the express purpose of destroying the entire country and having another, nameless, offstage friend of his shovel its remains into the sea with her army. So…technically…these folks were right on the money: he is an enemy of the state.

Every time a character started to interest me, Chant would get her killed. And yes, the characters were interesting, in a Gormenghasty-grotesque kind of way. The only character I actually liked was the apprentice, and Chant’s contempt for him was practically a parody of Sherlock Holmes’s attitude toward Watson: Ylfing is valuable only because Chant needs him, and Chant only needs him because he can’t find anyone better.

The companion book to this story, A Choir of Lies, is supposedly about Ylfing when he ascends to Chanthood, and tries to handle another sticky situation differently than his master. The blurb suggests that the credulity and open-heartedness of the young man that was the only bright spot in this book will not be enough to sustain him through whatever difficulties arise. I can’t say that’s much of a temptation to read it.

This is what I want in a story billed as a “conspiracy”: I want people to connect, to recognize one another’s invaluable gifts, to take a difficult situation and turn it inside out (if they’re the conspirators), or to foil the nefarious plot (if they’re the protectors of the current order). Nothing like this happens in A Conspiracy of Truths; people simply use one another all the way to destruction. The only consistent moral imperative of this story from first to last is how justified Chant is in his destructive machinations. It grew so unpleasant I started looking for ways to read him as an unreliable narrator; but the story never escapes his grip for a moment, so there was no way of finding out that Chant’s reality isn’t the centered and approved reality that the author wants to give me.

My voracious-reader friend, doing her due diligence in lieu of finishing this book, found this interview with the author about the subgenre of “hopepunk” — a term which I did not realize Rowland had coined. I was glad to read a description of hopepunk from the source, as it were, because I have never found the concept useful or appealing, despite approving thoroughly of all its component parts. Hopepunk — a righteous fury against bad systems coupled with an affirmation and triumph of the underdogs — seems to be what A Conspiracy of Truths is aiming at.

This is the theory. But in practice, my response to both the concept and this book can be summed up with one bewildered, annoyed sentence: “Yes, but not like that.”

What’s a redemption arc, anyway?

…Something to talk about instead of the pandemic, that’s what.

Occasionally, in my fannish lurkage, I see things cross my ken that confuse me, because it seems like half the conversation is missing and I could have sworn it was common currency ten minutes ago.

Today’s case in point: “redemption arcs.” Should a character be given a redemption arc? goes the debate. What makes a good redemption arc? Why don’t people like them? Is there a point of no return for a character, after which no morally-solvent story redeems them?

And all this debate is being conducted as if nobody ever heard the term “woobie.” Maybe I should do a series on the Fandom Old Lexicon.

For those of you just tuning in, a “woobie” is a Bad Guy Character that gathers a contingent of fans who love them so much they’d like to hug and kiss and squeeze them and call them George. Such fans get defensive when the Woobie is criticized, either on behalf of the character or in response to implied criticism of themselves for liking the character so unreservedly.

It’s hard to predict what characters get “woobified” — sometimes fans light upon an otherwise uninspiring antagonist character and festoon them with personality quirks or backstories or leather pants, out of all recognition to the source. Sometimes, though, one sees characters that are practically written to be woobie-bait, and sure enough, they get the fan base that canon was trolling for.

It’s the woobie dynamic that is being addressed when people talk about “redemption arcs” nowadays, I think. Only in the current climate, we have to talk about it not only as if the adorers of antagonists are somehow painfully unaware that the character is Bad, but that the only way to justify liking them is if they redeem themselves by the end of the story, like it’s somehow Cheating if a character is liked by fans without that.

And look, I get it. The Woob is not my jam — or the conditions under which I will woobify a character are extremely narrow and idiosyncratic. I’ve been known to be critical of woobifying as well as the woobies that receive the treatment. But “redemption arc” means something much more technical to me than “way of justifying a woobie’s existence.”

A “redemption” “arc” is exactly that — a trajectory in the story (which all significant characters should have) that starts in one place and ends in another, forms an essential contribution to the story’s moral imperative, and takes place primarily in the arena of the character’s own psyche. Redemption is wrought by and within the character being redeemed. And the significance of this work is something that the author is crafting on purpose, for their ultimate aims for the story as a whole.

The response of other characters to the redeemed character’s trajectory is something else entirely. I’ve said before that we often talk like redemption is bestowed and grace is earned, when it really should be the other way around. Redemption is earned. Grace is bestowed. Which means the other characters rightfully have the option of not bestowing it. It all depends on what story you’re trying to tell.

Once when a reader talked to me of Barklay in near-woobifying terms, I thought to myself: “Oh dear.” Because on the one hand, yes! I did hope to achieve a character that exerts a compelling interest! And part of the point of Barklay is to portray what kind of work redemption really is — its pitfalls, its blindnesses, its backslidings, its threat to the person’s stable self-image. On the other hand, Barklay isn’t meant to be the central figure in Ryswyck — except, technically speaking, as a MacGuffin for the other characters’ arcs. As a character he’s just…someone the main characters find difficult to love and also can’t help loving; someone about whom they ask, Am I cheating the universe and myself if I give grace to him?

To me, personally, that’s the far more interesting question. And if a “redemption arc” were something arbitrarily bestowed, you could hardly even ask it. Which is why, paradoxically, my instinct is to let woobifying fans have their fun. No: you don’t have to justify being fannish about a Bad Guy by trying to anticipate a story arc in which they make up for all their badnesses and either are welcomed back into the fold or die covered in a hero’s glory. Unless that’s what floats your boat, of course. Give them leather pants by all means. Draw them glaring from under the fold of their cloak, with the tiger’s eye that knows nothing of repentance. Fly! Be freeee!

And now for my afternoon cup of calming tea.