Ylfing has buried his name and become a Chant. Or at least, he’s gone through the motions. But although he’s mastered the art of telling stories, he hates it, and has spent the years since his master-Chant left him trying to become something else. When he accidentally becomes embroiled in a questionable business venture involving pungent glow-in-the-dark flowers, he starts telling stories again. Just not the good kind. Not the ones he cares about, pours his heart into and tells to the wind. But all the same, these stories carry enough power to make a fortune or—as the story grows too fast to control and mania surrounding the flowers builds—break a city. As this new enterprise unfolds, Chant-who-was-Ylfing meets another master-Chant whose views on the profession are quite different from those he was taught, and starts to realize that he does not need to be his master to be a Chant. And maybe, just maybe, he can save the city he has unwittingly set on the path to destruction.
The most striking feature of Alexandra Rowland’s latest novel, A Choir of Lies, are its snarky footnotes. The entire book is written as a manuscript with extensive editorial commentary, ranging from excising entire chapters and railing at the ethical implications of the project in general to questioning specific vocabulary choices. There is even an extensive commentary on the choice of a language with inadequate pronouns for the gender-fluid society depicted in the book. These footnotes are also the clearest implementation of Rowland’s notable skill at tailoring their prose to character. Unlike the first book in this series, A Conspiracy of Truths, Choir of Lies is narrated by just one protagonist, resulting in a more consistent style across most of the chapters. However, the portions written by the editor (who shall remain nameless here) are markedly different, and even change tone over the course of the novel, showing the arc of a character as they progress through the book with the reader. It’s a fascinating meta-literary experience, made all the more compelling by the moments when the nameless editor appears in the narrative itself.
Setting aside Rowland’s technical skill, their plot and characters are compelling as ever. They continue to offer tantalizing slices of a comprehensive, well-designed world. Whereas A Conspiracy of Truths was set in a Kafkaesque morass of graft and bureaucracy, A Choir of Lies takes place in a fantastical Amsterdam analog, complete with massive dikes, mercantile rivalries and a coterie of visiting Italians—pardon, Pezians—who may or may not have latent magical powers. The crisis facing this fictional trading city is, of course, financial, and it is instigated by a trading war for the least significant of crops: a flower that stinks to high heaven and is only pretty at night. And through it all, Chant-who-was-Ylfing remains equally endearing and infuriating, a skaldic puppy in provocative pants whose crisis of faith nearly destroys a nation.
A Choir of Lies should be on the reading list of any fan of darkly comic fantasy. Preferably just below its predecessor. Stories should be told in order, after all.