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Often fantasy fiction relies on escapism through the fantastic, so it’s refreshing when you come across a book like The Fall of the Kings that kind of skewers that the fantastic necessarily equates escape. The Fall of the Kings is very much a left turn from Swordspoint. Instead of centering around the violent, sexy swordsmen nobles contract to fight duels on their behalf, this book focuses on the politics of university and scholarship, trading swordplay for academic debates, with charismatic professors. Really, it’s the Dead Poet’s Society of Wizarding History, and it’s a fascinating study for fantasy fans.
The story is primarily about two men: Basil St. Cloud, a renegade scholar determined on discovering the hidden, taboo truths of the ancient kings (who were overthrown and executed by the nobles hundreds of years earlier) and their wizards. That’s right, wizards. It appears there just might be magic in Riverside, or there once was. And ever since the Fall of the Kings, even the discussion of magic has been outlawed (a detail that neatly explains why magic was so completely absent from Swordspoint). St. Cloud soon enters into a romantic relationship with aristocratic student Theron Campion – the son of the Mad Duke of Tremontaine – who bears resemblance to some of the ancient kings Basel has studied. Together their discoveries and passions concerning the secret truths of magic, the kings, and their wizards threaten to have consequences. To some degree, it puts me in mind of China Miéville’s The City & The City, and M. John Harrison’s In Viriconium (the last novel of the Viriconium cycle). It’s a novel that is very much playing against type, and questioning our typical expectations and desires of the fantastic. Will magic come back to the land? Is that really a good thing?
I’ve talked a lot about this being a sequel to Swordspoint, but I hadn’t realized until about halfway through the book that while this novel takes place some 60 years after The Privilege of the Sword, it was published four years before that novel was. I didn’t find it anywhere near as accessible and delightful as The Privilege of the Sword, or as thrilling as Swordspoint, but I don’t think that’s really the point. It’s a love letter to academia, and I think it’s more challenging than the other two books (and I mean that as a compliment). I’m also somewhat astonished by how little violence there is for the majority of this novel – something that pleases me in a genre that seems to depend on violence in order to be entertaining (and I say that as someone who is usually entertained by good fantasy novels, but also as someone who has noticed a disturbing trend).
Kushner’s narration is excellent (of course!) and the illuminated cast general does very solid work, as does the illuminated cast (I particularly liked the actor who played Justice Blake). I’m pretty bummed this is the final book in the series, partially due to how unique Kushner and Sue Zizza make this listening experience). My only complaint about the narration is a very odd one – it takes a little bit of work to hear Nick Sullivan, who played the deliciously wicked Lord Ferris in the other two Riverside novels, as the romantic historian hero St. Cloud. That’s not to take anything away from how strong his performance is here – it’s nice to hear Sullivan not be such a monster for a change. But Lord Ferris’ shadow always seems to be lingering whenever Sullivan began talking. (Though this was probably emphasized by me listening to this novel right after The Privilege of the Sword.)
In the final analysis, The Fall of the Kings is a unique kind of fantasy novel – one that challenges our expectations concerning magic and escapism in fantasy fiction. While I don’t think I enjoyed it quite as much as I did the other books in this series, I do appreciate that it did something very different from what we’re used to in fantasy fiction, and I found that refreshing.
15 of 16 people found this review helpful
Imagine Gandalf and Aragorn as lovers, the wizard choosing, advising, and sexing the king, the pair exchanging bodily fluids to make the land fertile! In The Fall of the Kings (2002), Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman queer the typical fantasy genre relationship between kings and wizards. Is their novel a bracing revision, a political passion, an unsavory folly, or just a well-written steamy same-sex romance fantasy about history, authority, truth, duty, art, love, and family? Maybe all of that.
Taking place about sixty years after the events of Kushner's earlier Swordspoint (1987) and about 45 years after those of her later The Privilege of the Sword (2006), The Fall of the Kings is set in her Elizabethan-esque secondary world centered around an anonymous city growing outward from its ancient island of origin, Riverside, home to a demimonde of pickpockets, prostitutes, artists, and the like now that the nobles have moved to the Hill across the river. The book begins with Theron Campion, the posthumous son of Alec, the Mad Duke Tremontaine, being dumped by Ysaud, a gifted artist who's finished using him as a model for a series of paintings featuring scenes from the legendary past, a man murdering his king-lover, a man staring at his stag reflection in a pool of water, a band of nude young men dancing around a fire, and so on. Will Theron find a new lover after having his heart broken? And will he find a way to balance his duties as future Duke with finding his bliss? Meanwhile, the wannabe intelligencer lordling Nicholas Galing yearns to be of use to the mysterious Serpent Chancellor Lord Arlen, who seems to be concerned about some possible royalist plotting in the city (two-hundred years earlier the nobles killed the last king and established a Council of Lords). A third plot strand features the university doctor of ancient history Basil St Cloud, who is practicing and teaching a revolutionary method, that of discovering new truth about history by examining primary source documents instead of rehashing the work of past authority figures. St Cloud's fixation on proving that kings were good, wizards benign, and magic real won't prove treasonous, will it?
Kushner and Sherman interestingly introduce the possibility of magic into the unmagical world of Riverside, develop the university, and detail the rich history of the city as far back as 500 years ago when the northern and southern cultures united. Unfortunately, the novel could have been shorter without harming its virtues, over-full as it is with portentous dream after portentous dream, provocative scholarly find after provocative scholarly find, intense confrontation after intense confrontation, bawdy seasonal festival after bawdy seasonal festival, aristo society event after aristo society event. The climax does not quite live up to its promising and lengthy build up, and the resolution left me feeling, "Is that all there is?"
In Kushner's earlier Swordspoint, I liked the relationship between young Alec Campion (the Mad Duke to be) and his swordsman lover Richard St Viers, and had no problem with their tasteful sex scenes, because Kushner wrote them sparingly and I liked the characters. In The Fall of the Kings, Kushner and Sherman posit a secret centuries-old northern ritualistic tradition by which the old king is sacrificed and a new king chosen by wizards from among his young male "companions" in a stag-hunt climaxing in group sex in a sacred grove, all of which was ostensibly to confirm the tie between king and land. Fair enough. But Theron imagining becoming a stag to rut with a stag (instead of a doe) to make the land fertile seems odd. And there is just so much sex alluded to or discreetly depicted in the book, the majority male-male, with a bit of female-female and male-female tossed in for spice, that it began to numb me (almost as much as too many violent action scenes do in typical genre fantasy). Perhaps the most fantastic thing here is that no one ever catches any STDs.
Theron's half-sister Jessica, "the Pirate Queen," injects new life into the novel and there are great moments in it, including one where a set of paintings becomes a sacred grove and another where Basil tries a magical text: "The letters lay dark and heavy on the page. Basil stared at the secret tongue. It teased him, dared him. . . He picked out the letters, and spoke two syllables aloud. They felt strange in his mouth, as if he were picking up pebbles or nuts and trying them on his tongue." Although Theron is rather shallow, self-centered, and lame (to me), other characters are interesting, like the unlikeable Henry Fremont, the obsessed Galing, and the brilliant and impractical St Cloud. The texture of secondary world creation is dense and intriguing. And I tip my cap to Kushner and Sherman for attempting to revivify the typical wizard-king relationship.
As with the audiobook versions of the other two Riverside novels, this one is "illuminated," Kushner reading most of it, and a handful of other men and women doing character voices in key scenes. I'd prefer either to hear the entire book read by the excellent Kushner or to hear it all read by the various readers. And although the music enhances the moods of the scenes, the redundant sound effects, from the striking of a "lucifer" (match) to the cheering of a crowd, disturb the immersive listening experience. After hearing someone knocking on a door, I don't then need the narrator to say, "a soft knock at the door heralded Terrance."
Finally, readers new to Kushner's Riverside books should read them in internal chronological order, Swordspoint followed by Privilege of the Sword, because although each book can stand alone, The Fall of the Kings is less satisfying than the others.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
Gosh I love these books. Having established an unusual fantasy world without magic in the previous two books, the magic of the old kingdom may be making a comeback here. Make sure you read them in the right order or your will be subject to much confusion and spoilers galore. I think the soundscape and partial dramatization of these books really adds to the atmosphere. There's a splendid and apt cameo from Neil Gaiman who is like a god to my people. Ellen Kushner does another good job of reading her own work especially with the more wicked men (Most of the men are very wicked indeed!) If you don't enjoy hearing about hot men getting it on with each other you will not have a good time with this book. If you do enjoy the eroticization of the male body then this book does that very well without being graphic or sleazy about it. It was nice to meet Catherine again as a grown woman as I had become so fond of her as a teenage swords(wo)man in Privilege of the Sword.
Now I want a book about Jessica, please.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
About half way through part one, the audio becomes fuzzy and unclear. Disappointing as I enjoy the story very much.