Riverside Read-along: The Fall of the Kings (week 4)

Book cover: The Fall of the Kings - Ellen Kushner & Delia ShermanAs Basil is torn between his regret and his complex ambitions, an unexpected visitor arrives in Riverside. But Theron is teetering on the edge of madness. Will his half-sister Jessica intervene to help him – or will her own bitterness with Tremontaine tempt her to ruin him completely?

By breaking our read slightly ahead of the end of each Book, we got to start the final week with a whole-throated chorus of BASIL NO. Just to get us in practice.

But first, a Galing interlude: our least favourite spy has finally been granted an audience with the Serpent Chancellor, who… isn’t the least bit interested in Theron. Or even Basil. Or is he? The thing about serpents is they’re notoriously twisty, and this one knows all too well what his agent is thinking because Galing isn’t anywhere near as subtle as he’d like to think he is. And while he calls Galing off, he also gives Galing his blessing to keep hunting on his own cognisance. It’s a nice piece of political work: Galing has no mandate and can expect no support – he’s going after the heir to Tremontaine, for crying out loud – and Arlen has complete deniability. But they both know Galing will keep going.

This is the perfect time for Basil to find out (second-hand, no less) that Theron is getting married. His lingering regrets over their vicious (enchanted) confrontation vanish like mist before the blazing sun of his rage. There is only one thing to do: cast spells. Thrice. Out loud. In the opportune season. BASIL NO.

From this point onwards it becomes increasingly hard to deny that magic exists in the world of Riverside. I mean, you could argue for coincidence, congenital madness and mass hysteria, but it would be a stretch. On the back of Basil’s casting, Theron goes bonkers – much as the Kings are said to have done, so let’s remember three things: Theron is descended from kings, Tremontaine has a reputation for madness, and all those mad kings had meddling wizards at their elbows. Which came first, the magic or the madness?

It was very hard to watch Theron tremble and twitch his way through the following chapters. With fight and flight instincts in overdrive, his libido also knew no bounds – much to Lady Genevieve’s dismay. Thankfully Theron is not Lord Ferris (and her mother interrupts), but Genevieve still gets a shock. The scene between Genevieve and Lady Randall is so familiar that it’s hard not to see it as Artemisia and Lady Fitz-Levi light (and I have to assume it sparked that storyline – because after this, Genevieve is mostly – and conveniently – off-page).

When Theron’s frustration took him to the Apricot, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I’ve got fewer issues with men getting tanked up and punchy as a prelude to lots of sex in the shadows than I had with the young noblemen’s foray into the brothel earlier in the novel, but it’s a long way from my comfort zone. Thankfully, the mysterious stranger who intervened turned out not to be Galing (and it probably says much about how my mind works and my expectations that I thought it was).

Jessica Campion rapidly became my favourite character in The Fall of the Kings and I’m delighted to hear she’ll be getting a book of her own. Her central turn in the final act never made me believe that things could yet end well for all concerned, but it gave me hope for Theron. It also gave me grief; every time we hear about Theron or Jessica’s relationship with Katherine, it becomes harder to reconcile the Duchess with the victorious girl from Privilege of the Sword. I am curious to see how the book on Jessica’s adolescence presents her – will we finally get to understand the pressures Katherine felt as Duchess that appear to have pushed her back into conforming after her own teenage rebellion?

While I loved Jessica’s manipulation of Theron’s political and nuptial situation, I particularly enjoyed her scene with Ysaud. Two strong-willed women who are used to getting their own way, much? And what a way *fans self* That said, I still don’t feel like I have a clue what Ysaud was up to. I think I’m meant to simply take her as a passionate artist with limited political awareness, and not to over-think it; similarly, not to read too much into her gift of the studies to Galing – simply trying to buy him off with good smut, rather than deliberately adding fuel to his fire. But in the end I’m left with a self-absorbed lack of care for consequences that affect other people, and that puts my teeth on edge. Theron, you’re an idiot. In fact, I could say a lot more about Theron, but I think Jessica largely covered it for me.

I’m skating over a few themes here that I may revisit in my final review, so let’s zoom on to the finale: the challenge at the University. Being a fee-paying member of Team Justis Blake, I took an odd sort of comfort in his withdrawal from University life. On the one hand, it reassured me that one of my favourites would be okay; on the other, his judgement of Basil mirrored my own. I also approve of his lady-love Marianne; down to earth and uneducated, but bright as a button. I loved that he chose to spend the challenge with her rather than with the other students.

I also got to see my other favourite, Frannie, in a brief – almost comic – escapade. It appears her life isn’t entirely as hide-bound as her grandparents would like; she and her cousin manage to sneak off for imaginative adventures (and I love that there’s no hesitation when it comes to stripping off her breeches so that Theron can escape Lady Caroline’s Folly. I do wonder how she got home, and how much trouble she got in when she got there – for going out in trousers in the first place, and for losing them. I wonder whether Agatha covered for her, or distanced herself as quickly as possible to limit her own punishment. I… may have been far more invested in Frannie than in Theron. I wonder how well she’d get on with Jessica).

The challenge went broadly as expected, although Galing’s intervention was more direct than anticipated. The outcome was also broadly as expected, and I was genuinely unsure whether Theron would survive it – not least because if I accept the magic, then I was uncertain quite how deep his bond to the Land was, resulting in a panic right at the end (and if Theron had survived Galing’s knife only to die aboard ship due to Sophia’s best intentions, I would have been DESTROYED. I would not have considered this a good thing or enjoyed it as such, and I’d have been appalled at Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman for doing that to Sophia, but from a narrative perspective I’d have found it satisfying. But our authors thankfully have hearts and souls and did not give us wall to wall bleakness to end our night. I can live with the idea of Theron going to Kyros becoming a pirate. He can get some less political tattoos).

I think it’s obvious I don’t love this book as much as I loved Swordspoint or The Privilege of the Sword, but I think I might have done with a last act that was more ambiguous.  If Theron had not been given any trousers, leaving him trapped at Lady Caroline’s Folly, so we could simply never know. If Basil had won his challenge through scholarship, demonstrating his points through his exemplary methods rather than casting spells on the steps. If Galing had been entirely frustrated and ended up St Cloud’s student ‘to keep an eye on him’, becoming intrigued by history (and perhaps his teacher). If we had been left unclear, in the end, as to whether magic actually existed – whether in fact it had all been a seasonal brain fever of frustrated coincidences. (Theron could still have sailed off to Kyros become a pirate)

Because I enjoy ambiguities (even when they frustrate me because I WANT TO KNOW), and I enjoy having my expectations subverted. In The Fall of the Kings, we get more of a drawn-out sequence of tragic inevitabilities, which was the sort of thing I loved better when I was younger (hallo Macbeth, you were always my favourite back then; now I’m all about Much Ado). I do have an abiding love of unhappy endings even though I hate them (yes, I can do both at the same time), so having never been Team Basil, I am sort of satisfied he paid the price for making me scream NO so often. Plus, in the end, he threw himself between Theron and Galing and proved his dedication to his lover and king. Oh ye gods, pass me the hanky after all.

I’ve been left with lots to chew on and I’ve rambled enough. So I’ll go chew some more until I’m ready to try and write a review.

[Edit: I realised as I read Lisa’s commentary last night that I may have missed some important points in the final chapter. On revisiting, I think we see certain developments slightly differently, which is the great joy of reading with friends. However, she did point out that I missed the final kick of what happened to Basil’s book of spells. It’s a bit like that final scene from Jurassic Park where the embryos are all buried in mud: out there, waiting for someone to trip over it. Or in this case, in terribly capable if arbitrary hands, so who knows where it will end up…]

Our reactions as we read are captured on Storify (thanks @effingrainbow!).

It is with great sadness that we bid farewell to the Riverside Read-along – for now. The live tweet-alongs will be continuing on Sundays at 9pm. Up next: #Temeraire.