Riverside Read-along: The Fall of the Kings (week 2)

Book cover: The Fall of the Kings - Ellen Kushner & Delia ShermanTheron loves Basil. Basil has doubts, but can’t deny his passion for his young lover. But one has the blood of kings – and kingslayers – in his veins, and the other is reading ancient books of magic at midnight. How much longer can they remain oblivious to the political riptides swirling around them?

I found it harder to put The Fall of the Kings down this week. While I still have reservations about Basil St Cloud, I realised I’d developed an attachment to Theron on Last Night and a burning curiosity about what the heck is going on. So what is going on?

This week’s action coalesces around several themes: Theron’s discomfort with his social status and obligations; conformity and double standards; and the relationships between Kings, Companions and wizards.

The crux of the matter is the celebration of Last Night, the start of the White Days. For those paying attention, this is when Alec came to see Katherine and Richard at Highcombe.

Quote: 'Katherine did not love tradition for its own sake, but there were things that had always meant a great deal to her and Last Night was one of them.'

For Theron, it’s another night of balls on the Hill. We’ve already seen him take refuge in the library at the Perrys’ Harvest Feast, where we met the delightful young Lady Francesca. Frannie (who I’m assuming is Artemisia’s child, although I suppose she could be her niece) is my new favourite character on the basis of her brief appearance, and provides us with another sad indication that while Katherine may have caused a stir as the independent Duchess Tremontaine, she hasn’t changed the lot of other noblewomen. Frannie loves stories, but is already being drilled to dismiss these as childish and understand that submission is the path to wifery. GRANDPAPA & GRANDMAMA FITZ-LEVI NO.

Theron too struggles to balance his desires with the expectations of society, but he has three advantages over Frannie: he’s half-foreign, so society already looks down on him; he’s Alec’s son, so is expected to behave badly; and he’s a young man, which grants him enormous leeway. In spite of all this, he does try to meet his obligations. But young men (and women) don’t always do the right thing; when he slips, Theron is judged more harshly by his peers – and by cousin Katherine – because he is Alec and Sophia’s son.

The double standard is illustrated in a number of ways. The University now attracts many noble students, but we only hear of Theron being criticised for lingering there. Similarly, Theron is an ongoing scandal for his affair with Ysaud, but the exploits of the young nobility in the whorehouses of the City go unremarked – I found the lads’ night out after the Harvest Feast an unpleasant interlude that did nobody any favours, but such behaviour is expected and tolerated. Theron works hard to keep his relationship with Basil quiet because it, too, would be seized on by his detractors: the Hill loves to sneer at same-sex relationships, even when it seems like half the Lords are having (or have had) one.

At home, Katherine appears blind to any effort Theron makes, her attitude soured by the ways in which he resembles his father (it might help if he were more punctual, which sounds ludicrous, but Katherine was always very precise).

He must make a useful poster boy for the other young men: don’t do the things your parents disapprove of, or you’ll end up like Theron Campion. This isn’t such a terrible thing if you think he’ll end up Duke Tremontaine, but Katherine isn’t obliged to keep him her heir. It’s pretty obvious she won’t cast him off in favour of Jessica, but she has other cousins and it’s equally obvious from his so-called advice on Last Night that her brother Gregory would cheerfully cut Theron loose if it worked to his advantage. I have feelings about Gregory. Gritted teeth, slitted eyes, low growling sort of feelings.

None of which may matter if Nicholas Galing and the Serpent Chancellor decide to make an example of him in the meantime. Ah, Nicholas. My little ‘ship of Theron/Galing had a brief moment of opportunity before Theron brushed him off at the Montague Ball. Let’s take a moment for a lost opportunity. Because seriously Theron, Galing is way more interesting than the shy young Genevieve Randall. I mean, I’m sure she’s lovely and will grow up really well, but the emphasis on how young and unspoilt and naïve she was just made me shudder. I get that Theron doesn’t like the absurd and supposedly worldly airs young ladies learn to adopt, but I have problems with age gaps when they suggest and/or reinforce power imbalances (the way Basil always thinks of Theron as ‘the boy’ really sets my teeth on edge too).

…which brings us back to Last Night.

The end of the year, a time for burnt regrets – and, in the North, for a royal tradition that has so much ritual significance hanging off it it’s no surprise that the young men involved are all off their heads to stop them thinking about it too hard. This is the other side of The Fall of the Kings, burdened with myth and history and fascinating in entirely different ways.

I’ve read a lot of fiction that plays with the idea of the King / Stag and his relationship with the land; I have certain expectations when it comes to this theme. There are two novels that I found myself recalling most: The Secret History (in which Classics students – like the Companions, but in the service of academic interest rather than religious commitment – try to rediscover Dionysian rites, ultimately chasing a deer/man through the woods to a bloody end) and The Mists of Avalon (which interweaves the Matter of Britain with a pagan rite where the king is the husband of the land, and must always – in the end – be sacrificed for its wellbeing).

You’ll notice there’s a common theme in religious rituals that involve men and deer, and it doesn’t bode well for Theron. I was genuinely uncertain where Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner would take it, which was when I realised that I have come to care what happens to him even if I’m with Katherine on wanting to shake him on a regular basis. Well played, authors. You got me (again).

So I was honestly nervous for Theron’s well-being when the drunken Companions stumbled over him as they searched for the Deer. Like unpleasant Henry Fremont, I wondered whether Lindley pointed to his former rival as petty spite. I had no idea how the Hunt would end – I was pleasantly surprised that he survived his experience, and intrigued by the suggestion that this is more than drink-fuelled hi-jinks; that the ritual may indeed tap into older powers.

The ensuing orgy is straight from the same playbook, but I remain uneasy with the way Theron’s role in it felt sacrificial. There’s several ways in which I can see this playing out into the new year – not least because Galing and his master know that Theron was there, and in what capacity (and are unlikely to appreciate the finer points of consensual participation or lack thereof). Galing’s visit to Ysaud only raised further questions (what is she playing at? And how long has she been playing at it?)

So, err, I’m all agog for next week. I still don’t like Basil (less than ever, in fact, I’m afraid), but I’m all sorts of fascinated by the history he is uncovering. I can’t believe he has been reading magic spells aloud (WHO DOES THAT? WHO? Oh, right, people without a century of horror movies in their cultural legacy), but I’m ever so curious to know whether they’re working – and to what extent they are now influencing his behaviour.

I think it’s all going to get horribly, horribly messy.



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