I came across A Conspiracy of Whispers and A Treason of Truths by Ada Harper (also known as A.J. Hackwith) quite by accident. A friend retweeted the publication announcement for A Treason of Truths into my timeline, with commentary along the lines of “empress/spymistress science fiction romance.” As you might imagine, it rather piqued my interest.
Since A Treason of Truths was the second book in the same continuity, I decided to begin at the beginning, with A Conspiracy of Whispers.
The novels are set in a far future, where after a cataclysm the human race has essentially been redesigned into infertile and fertile groups. People who can get pregnant, known as caricae, are rare; while people who can impregnate others, known as altuses, are slightly more common. People who can neither become pregnant nor impregnate, known as genta, are most common of all. (I’m not entirely sure this worldbuilding setup allows a realistic level of population-replacement, especially since people still seem to be doing murder and having wars, but declining-past-viable population levels doesn’t seem to be a major concern.)
A Conspiracy of Whispers opens in the repressive Syndicate, where caricae are forced into government breeding programmes. Olivia Shaw is a caricae who has no intention of joining the programme. She’s lived her life in hiding, never getting close to anyone—and has even managed a career of sorts as a freelance Whisper, the Syndicate’s spies/assassins/bounty-hunters/enforcers. When she’s handed an assignment that takes her across the border into the neighbouring Quillian Empire (her first time ever out of the Syndicate) to assassinate a low-ranking military officer, she stumbles across a kidnapping in progress and can’t quite bring herself to just kill the kidnap victim. Said victim introduces himself as one Captain Galen de Corvus, and after some back-and-forth, Olivia and Galen strike a bargain: Galen will help Olivia get back safely to (and across) the border, in the middle of a military coup, and in exchange, once at the border, Olivia will tell him everything she can about the striking coincidence that saw her sent on an assassination mission just as someone kicked off a coup in the Quillian Empire.
But things are a little more complicated than that. Especially since it turns out Galen is the heir to the Quillian Empire, brother to its empress Sabine—and especially when Olivia finds that her attempt to go home again is being wrecked by the fact her Whisper handler knows she’s a caricae. Claiming asylum in the Quillian Empire is complicated by Empress Sabine not being too impressed with her brother’s rapidly-developed affections for Olivia—and by the small problem that the coup attempt is threatening the heart of the empire itself.
With climactic battles in destroyed cities and in besieged palaces, and an interesting developing relationship between Olivia and Galen, A Conspiracy of Whispers is a hell of a lot of fun.
A Treason of Truths is also a hell of a lot of fun. Empress Sabine has known her spymistress, Lyre, since they were adolescents—long before anyone thought Sabine could take and hold the throne. But Sabine doesn’t know that before Lyre was Sabine’s, Lyre was a spy for the flying city known as the Cloud Vault. And Sabine doesn’t know that Lyre wishes she were more than merely Sabine’s spymistress—she wishes they could be lovers.
When Sabine is invited to participate in diplomatic negotiations hosted by the Cloud Vault, she naturally expects her spymistress and advisor will attend with her. But Lyre panics at the thought of having her past revealed—of being no longer able to be near Sabine. Her reaction—her resignation—causes a rupture in their working relationship and in their friendship, and causes Sabine to dismiss her from her service entirely. But Lyre isn’t about to let Sabine go to the Cloud Vault unprotected, and manages to bring herself along regardless. When the diplomatic negotiations go awry and their hosts start trying to kill them, Lyre and Sabine are forced to face up to both the past and their feelings for each other—but can they escape from the Cloud Vault together before they run out of time?
The initial act of this book is less fun than A Conspiracy of Whispers, because both Lyre and Sabine are acting like hotheaded emotional teenage fools, rather than grown-up women who have directed the affairs of a nation for years. But once we get past their plot-induced ridiculousness, this is a kickass story, and I really enjoyed it. I sincerely hope that Harper writes more.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.