At the heart of Conquest lies Scotland, its stunning countryside, its fortresses. Many of its citizens have become rebels, hiding in the most remote glens, battling an enemy more deadly than any in the country’s history. The Illyri have invaded – tall, graceful humanoid aliens with lidless eyes like marbles. Andrus, their leader responsible for Europe, speaks of a ‘gentle invasion’, but while hunger has been eliminated, the prohibition of dissent, mass communication and travel, aggravated by the conscription of one tenth of the planet’s youngsters as hostage combatants, has generated increasing revolt and violence. The Illyri take shelter in medieval castles and re-fortify Roman walls and forts. It’s all just a matter of time.
Our heroine Syl Hellais is such a likeable girl. Having just reached the age of 16 she is full of life and anticipation, living in a place she loves deeply: Edinburgh, a city of beauty and history. Unfortunately, its history doesn’t belong to her. Syl is the adored daughter of the Lord Andrus. Largely neglected while he is bowed down by the weight of government, Syl has grown free. As the first alien born on Earth, she is an Illyri who feels that Earth is her home. But when she and her friend are out exploring Edinburgh, in disguise, they only just miss a bomb blast, pulled to safety by two human boys, Paul and his younger brother Steven. From this moment, on her birthday, Syl begins to understand that there are two sides to the future history that her people and her family are creating.
And when a ship arrives from the homeworld containing the much feared Grand Consul Gradus and his even more deadly wife Syrene, the Archmage of the Nairene Sisterhood, it becomes clear to Syl that life has become just as dangerous and uncertain within the castle walls as it is outside. Syl has to take a chance, take a leap of faith, and turn her back on her Illrian heritage. By doing this she might save her own people just as much as those who belong to Earth.
Conquest is the first in a new YA series called The Chronicles of the Invaders. Penned by the well-known fantasy writer John Connolly in tandem with his partner, the journalist and first time author Jennifer Ridyard, Conquest is a richly enjoyable science fiction tale that succeeds for so many reasons. It mixes lightness, romance even, with dark horror in such a way that as it began I feared that it would be too light to interest me, the aliens and humans too similar to intrigue. But this is merely to lull us into a false sense of security. We, just like Syl, begin this novel as if it were a childhood game but as it proceeds it shortly becomes something else entirely. While the physical similarities between the species does mean that romance can flare up with reason between Syl and Peter, in time that romance becomes a heroic love. Childhood is left behind during these pages – by Syl and by Peter and his brother.
I enjoyed the background story of the Illyri world, its politics and its witches. I also liked the contrast with the Scottish setting – a welcome change from American locations. But what I particularly relished was the dark side of Conquest. With Gradus and Syrene arrives great evil. We meet aliens that are worlds away from human life and they are horrifying. One gave me nightmares. There are revelations and shocks set among scenes of high dramatic edge-of-seat adventure. Peter, Steven and Syl are wonderful characters, taken to the very edge of what they can cope with, and they are surrounded by others just as memorable and all with their own stories.
The human and the Illyri stories contrast and work well together, with tantalising hints of what is going on in the other worlds that have been conquered and are now patrolled by human conscripts. I hope we hear more of this in future novels in the series.
Conquest might be the first in a series but it ends at a point that satisfies while making you look forward to the next, just as it should. It did take me a few chapters to get used to the style and the tone – I’m not sure if this is something to do with the ‘Two Authors Syndrome’ – but it’s not long at all before it gels together and I was hanging on every word. I think this will become a grand science fiction series for readers of all ages.