Riverside Review: The Fall of the Kings

Book cover: The Fall of the Kings - Ellen Kushner & Delia ShermanTheron Campion, heir to Tremontaine, takes after his father the Mad Duke: smart and scandalous. Dallying at the University, he meets intense young historian Doctor Basil St Cloud and the pair begin a passionate relationship. But Theron has royal blood, and the North cries out the return of Kings and wizards. Will Basil’s research become the catalyst for a royal revolution?

I am desperately glad I read The Fall of the Kings with a group, as this encouraged me to think hard about it and obsess about the details rather than bouncing off it (which I suspect would have happened flying solo). I accused Swordspoint of being a novel of personalities and Privilege of the Sword of examining larger political themes, but The Fall of the Kings has the biggest canvas yet.

On the plus side, this allows Ellen Kushner and co-author Delia Sherman to introduce a level of world-building that is missing from the other novels. We come to understand the broader history of the land – a union of separate kingdoms that has ultimately seen a once-rich warrior kingdom subjugated to a nobility who are culturally aligned with the south. The North not only lost its king, but its religion – an annual round of magical rites that kept the Land healthy.

We’ve spent a lot of time with the nobility of the Hill, so it’s not hard to grasp why a decline in wealth and a series of poor harvests would result in northern unrest. The nobility have estates scattered across the Land, sourcing their wealth in rents with varying degrees of affinity with their tenants (Katherine and the Godwins are no doubt solicitous; others less so).

We come to understand the political situation through the lens of the students at the University who have come to study history – once a perfectly safe subject, now becoming slightly risqué due to the new-fangled techniques championed by Basil St Cloud, who believes in actually consulting historical sources. Basil – with his suggestion that the Kings may not all have been as mad and wicked as is traditionally taught – has attracted some rowdy Northerners, one of who demands the reinstatement of the monarchy (and then inconveniently commits suicide).

This is a lit match in dry tinder. Basil St Cloud finds himself vying for the soon to be vacated Horn Chair for History, his techniques – and soon much more – on trial. When he is offered an ancient book that he can barely decipher, he begins to suspect he has a real treasure in his hands: a spellbook written by one of the most famous wizards of old. As a historical artefact, it’s priceless. But as he immerses himself in studying it, it begins to be clear that magic may be much more than a pretty tale for children – it may be real and dangerous.

The Northerners certainly believe so. Their storyline focuses heavily on the seasonal rites they believe are necessary to keep the Land healthy, and their search for a King who will return to reinvigorate it. They have no idea who this will be, and are disconcerted to attract some southerners to their ranks. When one of these points out the heir to Tremontaine (of royal descent, but directly descended from the last King’s murderer) all hell breaks loose in all directions.

The threat is from the ruling Council. The Chancellors have no interest in reinstating a monarchy – it would cost them their own influence, and several generations of education confirm that the Kings were wicked and bonkers (*cough* a bit like Tremontaine men *cough*). But it rapidly becomes clear that even the Serpent Chancellor is wary of suggesting that Tremontaine has stooped to treason. Duchess Katherine (*dance*) is well respected in spite of her eccentricities, and young Theron is (pretty much correctly) considered a shiftless playboy.

But as Basil continues to study what may or may not be a spell book, and the Northerners continue to practice their rituals in the oak groves, it all starts to look like ancient magic may make fools of them all. The question is the price it will exact – and who will have to pay it.

And that doesn’t begin to summarise half of what’s going on, because inevitably – as with Swordspoint and Privilege – all this plot is driven through personalities and Fall gives us the biggest cast yet. On the one hand we have the familiar faces of Tremontaine (an older Katherine and Marcus, who are… rather more traditional than in Privilege, which was written after Fall; Theron’s mother, the rather marvellous Sophia; and eventually his fabulous half-sister Jessica, daughter of the Black Rose), although we spend by far the most time with Theron himself; Basil, his lecturing friends, and a gaggle of students from the University – Northerners and southern historians; the Serpent Chancellor’s spy network; and a backdrop of nobility. It is at times overwhelming, as many of these characters get scenes to themselves to further the plot, and the inter-connections (both in terms of Fall and in terms of recurring faces and Houses from the other novels) are valuable to keep track of.

So with all that going on, why would I have bounced off? In part because I found very few characters I could root for, in spite of the size of the cast. While I had reservations about most of the cast of Swordspoint, I also had plenty of reasons to relish them (and Diane had me at hello anyway). In Privilege, I adored Katherine and Marcus and delighted in Artemisia. In Fall, I was not only overwhelmed by the number of people in play, but also found them less likeable. It took me time to learn to mistrust Alec and judge Richard. By contrast, I never warmed to Basil (even before he begins to lose himself to the influence of his books) and Theron had me oscillating between sympathy and judgmental frustration. By the end of the novel, it was crystal clear to me who my favourites were, and they were at best peripheral (and one appeared in only 2 scenes).

While I loved the world-building, I didn’t entirely enjoy the journey. The Fall of the Kings – as the name suggests – is set up to be epic tragedy, and I never believed that a deus ex machina (or even Jessica) would be able to divert the cartload of fate rolling down the hill (or the Hill). Because I was less invested in the characters, the slow motion car crash of their flailing didn’t engage me to the same extent as the previous novels. Ultimately, I would say Fall struggles under its own weight and ponderous pace, and while I light-heartedly suggested some alternate endings that might have won me over at the last minute, I don’t honestly think they would have made a huge difference.

If Swordspoint is gripping and Privilege is agonising delight, Fall is hard work. It’s rewarding – it’s a beautiful bit of craft, and I love that it’s a fantasy novel that dares to focus through the lens of academic debate (the historical research was one of my favourite elements) – but it’s not quite what I was hoping for.

In spite of all this, I can see myself reading it again and loving it a second time around. Yes, I’m contrary and inconsistent. I know it. But the devil is in the detail here, and I think I’d cherish some of the relationships if I weren’t trying so hard to reconcile this Duchess with my memories of young Katherine; or wishing for Theron (and Basil) to be something other than what they are. Sometimes foreknowledge unlocks a different way of approaching and appreciating a book, and I suspect this is a book that would benefit from it.




Weekly discussions (more details and spoilers): week one, week two, week three, and week four.