Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman’s The Fall of the Kings

Ellen Kushner’s first novel was Swordspoint, a romantic fantasy set in a universe strongly reminiscent of Jacobean and Restoration London, with admixtures of the Elizabethan and Georgian eras – life is bigger than life, intrigue is rampant, the City, which is the main locus of the action, is a lively, vital part of a story that ranges from the crime-ridden Riverside to the artistocratic estates on the Hill. The only magic involved is Kushner’s storytelling. The Fall of the Kings is set sixty years after the events in the first novel, and with Delia Sherman as collaborator Kushner has broadened and enriched the context and created a story that still rings with the bustle of a vibrant city and adds an element of darker, more mysterious past to a time bathed in reason.

Basil St. Cloud is a scholar, a Doctor in History at the University. His passion is for truth and scholarship, and he has little time, or even awareness, for politics or, sometimes, common sense. He is the son of a commoner, a man who is, in fact, steward of an estate that is part of the holdings of the Campion family. Theron Campion is an aristocrat, heir to the Duchy of Tremontaine; the Campions are ancient nobility who carry the blood of the deposed Kings. And Theron is as much a grasshopper as Basil is an ant, notorious for his excesses, especially the number and variety of his lovers, of which he is determined that Basil will be the next. (Theron’s father was the David Alexander Campion of Swordspoint, whose lover was the swordsman Richard St. Vier.) Basil, after some initial stuffiness, proves more than willing.

The main thrust of the story is the intrigue surrounding the history of the Kings and their fall. Long before, the Queen of the Southern Realm joined herself and her realm to the Northern Realm through a Treaty of Union and a marriage. The Northern Realm was a place of myth and magic, ruled by the Kings and their Wizards, who were also their lovers, and who came south with them to rule the combined realms. In the South, the nobles sought to undercut the power of the wizards and were eventually successful. The Kings, however, were all mad and could not be restrained, until the last King was assassinated by a Duke of Tremontaine. The histories all say that the Kings were mad and corrupt, the wizards were charlatans, and to speak of magic or wizards is treason to the Council of nobles that now rules the realm. In the North, however, there is famine and unrest, ascribed by the Northerners to the absence of a King of the Land; the crisis is sparked by a Northerner who comes to the City and openly petitions the Council for the restoration of the Kings. Basil, whose specialty is “ancient” history, is researching the Union and the realm of the Kings; Theron is their heir.

Kushner and Sherman weave an amazing story of intrigue, deception, myth, academic politics, and the rediscovery of magic, building to a climax in which the general outlines are predictable, but the specifics are a complete surprize. There are so many layers to this novel that I don’t really know where to start. The relationship between Theron and Basil is by turns tender and stormy; as the myth begins to take hold, we see the two men begin to lose their humanity as they partake of larger forces. The sly dealings of Lord Arlen, Serpent Chancellor of the Council of Lords, whose agent, Nicholas, Lord Galing, never knows completely what is expected or desired; the academic buffoonery of Roger Crabbe, Doctor of History and purveyor of the regurgitated (and politically acceptable) ideas of his predecessors; Katherine, Duchess of Tremontaine, an extremly powerful woman, much of whose time is spent trying to keep the family scandals under control; the scholars, Vandeleur, Fremont, Lindley, Godwin, and Blake, who are St. Cloud’s devoted inner circle; all are richly drawn and subtly developed, as are a host of minor characters. The threads of myth and history are interwoven, not only in the daylight world of academia, but in dreams and night-time escapades – the rituals of the Northerners who call themselves the Companions of the King, Theron’s increasingly explicit dreams of being hunted; Basil’s dreams of sacrificing his lover; Theron’s sojourn at the Apricot, a bar where men to go meet men (which is a scene of compelling violence and eroticism), and Basil’s fevered and monomaniacal researches into the wizards and their magic – all combine to create a story that is largely indescribable.

The blurbs for this book include references to Georgette Heyer, Dorothy Dunnet, Oscar Wilde – I would say, add in some of the bawdier comedies of the Elizabethans, perhaps a dose of Richard Sheridan’s brittle dialogue, and a good helping of the eroticism of Anne Bishop’s universe of the Blood (oh, and don’t forget Jane Austen’s merciless satire), and you are starting to get close – but only close. It’s a very rich book, and achieves something that is very difficult: Kushner and Sherman manage to bring to reality a sense of the dark power of myth, the blood heat of ancient rituals, in a context that is clear, rational, and mundane. The characters, though often eccentric, are almost tangible, the City is lovingly rendered, the plot intricate and absorbing, the dialogue absolutely rings true, and there’s lots of great sex. It’s a terrific book.

(Bantam Books, 2002)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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