Fiction Reviews


(2023) Nina Allan, Riverrun, £14.99, trdpbk, 307pp, ISBN 978-1-529-42078-4


Maybe, just maybe aliens are already here. And maybe the evidence is in music, in the groundbreaking tonality of Bach, or in an obscure novella about a tower built with alien, mind altering stone. Or in strange, atypical lichen covering ancient trees, which might, just might, bear witness to an alien landing site and the contamination it might have left in its wake.

All is not as it seems in Nina Allan’s Conquest. There are mysteries, but not just about who might be conquering who, and for what, but on a character level too – a vulnerable adult and genius coder, Frank, gets sucked into conspiracy theories about secret plots, alien infestations and ‘n-men’, following a rabbit hole set by wealthy, charismatic crime-connected intellectual Eddie de Groote. Frank is persuaded to take a trip to Paris by de Groote but then disappears, to the consternation of his girlfriend, Rachel. In desperation, she employs a private detective with a complex backstory, Robin, who goes in search of Frank. In the process she finds she’s searching for understanding of her own past, too, with some surprising revelations.

This novel was written straddling CoVID, and the author makes clear in her notes that it changed because of that. There are CoVID references and questions raised as to origins, but ultimately I see this book as primarily about relationships, mysteries and understandings. It’s got an interesting, creative narrative style that meshes well with the characters and the subject matter but I found the most satisfying part the reproduction of the ‘found’ 1950s novella (The Tower) that Frank, being Frank, takes as more fact than fiction: a straightforward, linear narrative about a subtle conquest, not with guns and missiles but with the subversion of thought and the infiltration of alien DNA.

Allan’s book makes solid ground seem intangible: she asks questions but leaves the answers lingering, even to the extent of providing two alternate endings, neither of them actually addressing the key issues (a strength, not a weakness. She has the good sense to leave things dangling). She writes well, but I suspect it would help to have a good knowledge for classical music to appreciate some of the passages. Both of the key characters – Frank and Robin – love Bach but possibly for different reasons: for Frank, “Bach’s music was not simply music but an alien code”, and for Robin, it’s about discovery.

An interesting novel, though it does have a tendency to wander around the main plotline and I’m not quite sure it delivers at the end. That said, it’s engaging, challenging and entertaining – a caveated recommendation from me.

Mark Bilsborough


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