Review by Curtis Cole
Let us just get this out of the way—story telling is hard, and the dubious inheritances from the so-called titans of our epoch (Tolkien, Card, Rowling, etc.) hardly make the job of modern story tellers easier, much less when they are mashed into a Space Opera pastiche.
Perhaps that is why I disliked Dhayaa Anbajagane’s Conquest so much. That is wasn’t so much an original work as a field exercise in combining various parts of pop culture into an expressive whole. Still, this is not the whole case since it would be letting Anbajagane off the hook too easily; at the end of the day, even when we take into account that Conquest is the author’s first stab at creative writing, and even after we understand the target audience for this novel, we cannot speak of this as a good or even a decent book. Because, quite honestly, it is pretty horrid.
The story begins with Q, your standard rambunctious teenage boy. He plays Mario games in class (because if fifteen-year-old boys like one video game franchise above all others, it is Mario…). He is a bit of a wisecracking screen—the reader is meant to project themselves onto him and sympathize with his alleged plight. That is about there all is to him. As far as characters go he is as vapid as they come.
Anyways, Q is actually super-special—yeah, you heard me: he has special gifts which he does not know about and a super-special family. Who would have thought?! …but before he figures out his specialness he discovers that his brother is actually a super-duper important dude in an intergalactic community of do-gooders dedicated to, among other things, protecting the universe from a nefarious race of baddies from some other dimension.
Turns out that his brother—Carlos— was keeping this a secret from him because of Standard Fiction Hyperbole™ (i.e., his brother wanted to keep Q safe and ignorant so as to preserve his innocence). But after he and a friend, Taylor, who, incidentally, is also a secret bad-ass with the intergalactic police, happen upon a memory erasing monster, both are thrust onto a journey which spans the stars; a quest to find a hidden temple, locate a map, and plead with super-beings to help humanity in the coming great war.
All of this should make for an exciting story, but it does not. In fact, the story is tedious. It is a prime example of the late J.K Rowling’s style of [Stuff Happening]. There is something loosely defined as a story, and there is a lot of action, but precious little of it actually matters. Mostly, what I saw when reading was the following: an action scene unfolds, then the next chapter takes up some irrelevant minutia from that previous action scene in order to push the plot forward (a technique which had the end-effect of bloating the book with pointless filler). Despite being just over three-hundred pages, this is a story which could have been told in half the number of pages.
Additionally, the character development and world building are done in a slapdash manner.
Outside of base character reveals and poorly explained, and greatly rushed, character power-advancements, there isn’t actually any character development. Anbajagane’s text reads like fan-fiction; the characters have a cardboard personality and that is it. The story never surmounts the archetypes which the cast is drawn from. What made this more maddening was that the characters themselves were tightly connected to the world building—each of Q’s friends were clearly aligned with different cultures and backgrounds, and the building of the creative universe was obviously intended to come forth naturally from the characters abilities and skills. However, this never came together: since the entire plot is rushed at a breakneck pace, the reader never has the time to either assimilate the details—what little there are—nor is there even space for the author to talk about those details before moving on to the next plot point. In short, the duality of the universe being revealed through the characters and irrational events as they unfold, create chaos, and so cause Anbajagane to trip over himself in much the same manner as a toddler who just cannot seem to keep his shoe laces tied.
The revelation that Q is actually the budding form of a powerful sorcerer, and that he is the key to saving the galaxy, lacks any narrative oomph; he overcomes his self-doubt in an amazingly fast manner and manages to not only, more or less, master his powers, but even start to lecture others on the ins and outs of the ‘Wave’ magick techniques. Such a reality becomes eye-rolling when the author attempts to align the growth of Q’s powers with battle experience. Denoting a low-point in the novel, Anbajagane seemed to be more inspired by video games, and the attempt to replicate their aesthetic in a novel format, than by anything which we might call original writing.
In terms of the book’s gender politics, Conquest is predictable: it is a lazy, arrogant piece of wish-fulfillment fantasy. With Q being only one of two male characters during the bulk of the book, of course, the two of three female characters are going to get the hots for Q. Between him and Taylor there exist obvious chemistry (she is, after all, the “Girlfriend-by-Default” character), so it is aggravating when another female character attempts to seduce Q with a kiss. What makes this absurd is that, in real life, relations between teens are not quite so… robust, there is a winding path of courtship which takes many awkward turns, so male fantasy in which age-appropriate after age-appropriate female tries to win the male lead, is gross. It is nothing but the author waxing eloquently about his erotic desires. Again, in case you misheard the first time, it is gross.
Perhaps the love triangle cliché would be bearable were it not for the chauvinistic infantilization of the female leads. Taylor, but also Elizabeth, are strong and independent young woman. They have shown themselves to be far more experienced, and capable, then Q in multiple arenas. Of course, this does not stop them from becoming ‘Waifu’ fantasies that degenerate into disempowered husks of emotional instability. Do not worry, though, our adolescent (Male) übermench is here to save the day, complete with Jesuit-allegorical-symbolism—hooray! Please.
But even so, even if you were able to ignore all of this, it is still a bad piece of writing.
The final thirty-five percent of the book is high-nigh incoherent. Events move so fast that it is borderline absurd; certainly, it is questionable what the author was thinking. We see our heroes rush from finding the supposed map, to fighting pirates and their ice-dragon pet (of which, the whole effort feels like it is ripped straight from a video game boss fight), to negotiating with super-beings, to [Unsurprising Surprise Twist], to [Final Battle], before the merciful end concludes on a cheesy-as-heck finale.
To add to the heap, Anbajagane has many grammar and punctuation mistakes (though I was never one who cared for such things). But, on top of that, he also fills his chapters with many, many single sentence paragraphs. At one point, I could ignore the dramatics as it felt suited, in some fashion, to his style; later in the book, however, I could not ignore this as I noticed that these pseudo-dramatic moments had taken up half the page. Combined with Anbajagane’s lack of character development, improperly done world-building, and bad gender politics, there is not much to recommend this read on.
Conquest is the kind of book that I would have enjoyed reading when I was, say, twelve or thirteen. It reads like a video game and has references to many popular teen and young adult texts; but here is its weakness—because it has roots in Ender’s Game, Star Wars, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Mass Effect (among others), it does not have an identity by itself. This is why so much of the book fails and why the genuinely interesting elements—such as Q’s ‘Wave Mapping’ abilities—are not developed because the story does not actually matter— it is a hodgepodge of ideas which exist only to advance the narrative. Once the narrative has been advanced, then it quickly forgets itself in the intertextual intermingling.
Have I read worse books? You bet I have! Conquest is not by any means a travesty of a novel, but it is hardly worthy of being read by anyone not presently undergoing puberty. And who is anyone other than a cisgender heterosexual male. This is Anbajagane’s first book and he met some success with it, so he should be congratulated for doing a decent job with a certain audience—even more so since he was since written several more books in this series—but though we may forgive some of his errors since this is his first effort, this does not erase the fact that Conquest is a foundation of dubious intent muddled with trite writing.
ConQuest: A Space Opera Action Thriller (The Quest Saga Book 1)
308 pages. Published by Dhayaa Anbajagane. $12.99 (Paperback), $3.99 (Kindle). 2015.
 Price estimates taken from Amazon.com and were accurate at the time of writing.