The tagline for Conquest, Vik Rubenfeld’s new novel, says it all: “The hardship and triumph of following your heart.” Told in a strong first-person voice by bass player Reid Taylor, Conquest is the story of a band’s rise from its stalled and humble beginnings to fame as live performers and recording artists. When the story opens, Reid’s girlfriend has just dumped him, and he tries to combat his anguish by going to an audition for a new band. By the end of the auditions, Reid is the new bass player, along with drummer Clay and guitarist Barry, who has enticed Reid with his powerful songwriting. The band soon finds a vocalist named Link who is up to the task of singing the complex songs, and the band is complete. Their journey to fame begins as they start playing small clubs, gain a fan base, and eventually get signed to a record deal and are asked to go on tour as support act for a band named Redwing. Their popularity on tour continues to increase, and when Conquest’s record comes out, fame and fortune seem certain for the band.
The road to fame, however, is a rocky one. Clay is self-serving and reckless, and he continually cheats on the girlfriend that he left behind at home. Barry is a brilliant song-writer and musician, but he doubts his own ability to succeed in the business. Link is one of the more interesting characters, a man who was homeless before he joined Conquest, and who never assumes that he won’t end up that way again someday. And our narrator Reid, who has met the supposed love of his life shortly before going on tour, is trying to do the right thing by not sleeping with all the women who follow the band. With this mix of personalities, there’s bound to be trouble. And it isn’t too long before things start falling apart.
I found the best parts of Conquest to be the evocative descriptions of the band creating and playing their music. Rubenfeld may or may not be a musician himself, but he clearly has an understanding of what it feels like to get lost in the act of creating. And choosing a bass player as the narrator was a good choice. As Reid says in the first chapter, “My bass was just like the anchor that kept the kite from flying off into the sky and getting lost.” He is the easy-going band member that tries to keep it all together, and for a while, he succeeds.
While the male characters are mostly convincing, however, the female characters are not. Although this is a story about guys in a band, unfortunately for the female reader there is nary an interesting female character in sight. Every girl here is either somebody’s girlfriend or even worse, a one-night stand. Reid’s girlfriend Kristy gamely stays faithful as Reid and the band hit the road, but Reid is clearly tempted at every turn by the groupies who show up at their shows. Although he claims to be in love with Kristy and even wants to marry her, he has a hard time saying “no” to these women, and eventually he gives in to peer pressure and starts sleeping with them. This scenario is probably true-to-life, but it made Reid less likeable for me. And even though Clay’s girlfriend Leah knows he is cheating on her while touring, she still reacts violently when he finally breaks up with her. Stronger and more believable female characters would have made a welcome change of pace from the stereotypical rock band typecasting.
Despite these flaws in characterization, and a rather far-fetched and violent ending, Conquest is an enjoyable read that gets to the heart of what music is all about: the joy of collaborating, the drive to keep going in a difficult industry, and the magic moments that happen to a group of musicians when everything comes together just right.