A 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.
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