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.”

The grimdark/hopepunk gestalt, and other sandtraps

It’s so hard to get on Twitter without being overwhelmed by Appalling Things, but I do wind up picking at the margins of current topics when my friends talk about them, and then they get into the bloodstream of my thoughts and I wind up producing a personal podcast (like a personal pan pizza, consumed by one’s self only) on my commute. Which I was doing this evening, only then the thought occurred to me: Isn’t this why you have a fucking blog? (It’s my commute, so f-bombs are a feature of the landscape.)

Why yes, yes it is.

The new generations of writers and readers have been coming up with — I suppose they’re not genres, really, but descriptive modes for stories, and the one that’s come up on my radar recently is hopepunk. At first glance it seems like it’d be right up my street, hopepunk — coined, as far as I can tell, as a counter to grimdark, which I’ve already got a canned rant about. The short version is, for the last hundred years or so, a defining feature of Serious Literature has been grimness and darkness — dis-integration of people and relationships and situations, fragmentation of narratives. Meaning reduced to incoherence as a statement of truth, co-inherence mocked and flouted by assiduously unhappy endings. Thus not only do Serious People want to make you read stories about disaster and incoherence, they also want to scold you for wanting the opposite. And who needs it, really?

So hopepunk, yeah, sounds great, let’s have some! Only…what is it?

From my perspective on the fringes of the discussion, it looks like people have a hard time identifying what is a proper example of hopepunk, one that can be agreed upon by all parties. In fact, what some people see as hopepunk, others noped out of as the epitome of grimdark. And vice versa. It’s like “postmodern,” which is, well, you know, something…a little bit more modern than modern, right? No matter how clearly set out the concept is to start with, it runs afoul in practice of a sort of subjective gestalt.

And part of the problem is that people want stories to bear witness to their pain and difficulty and disaster; and to speak too quickly of hope is to betray their testimony to a final rebuttal. To say, “but that’s not what hope means,” and try to back-and-fill the concept, just clouds the issue further.

Which is why I still prefer Tolkien’s word eucatastrophe as a descriptive mode for the stories I want. We all know what catastrophe is: everything I said about Serious Literature above. So then what is the good catastrophe? It’s a story that specifically invokes that witness to pain and difficulty and disaster, so that it can bring forth the integrated meaning and co-inherence and renewal and reversal that every situation can potentially produce. Eucatastrophe does not betray by a clap-back from outside the situation: it restores things from within the structure of its own landscape of meaning. It makes the tellers of such stories agents in their own rescue; it puts others in potential touch with a wild and painful joy. You can want it or not want it, but it’s a definite thing. You can say, “This story has a payoff, but getting there might not be worth it to you.” Or you can say, “This story doesn’t have enough of a payoff to justify the misery.” Eucatastrophe as a concept lets you say definite things about actual stories, and have a, well, coherent conversation about them. In fact, so long as the concept is in place, you hardly have to use Tolkien’s 25-cent word at all.

A word you don’t actually have to say to use: now that’s a useful word.