Ellen Kushner’s Tremontaine

Kushner-TremontaineTremontaine is the latest foray into the world of Swordspoint, but it is not, as I had at first supposed, a collection of stories. It is, rather, an ongoing narrative with chapters by a group of writers, most of whom are new to me: Kushner, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Patty Bryant, Racheline Maltese, and Paul Witcover. One thing that deserves mention, given the number of people working on this story, is the stylistic consistency: if there are differences in style or diction, they are so subtle as to escape notice.

In Kushner’s opening chapter we are introduced to the main characters: Diane, Duchess Tremontaine; Rafe Fenton, son of a wealthy merchant and a student at the University; Micah, a farm girl masquerading as a boy who is obsessed by numbers; and Ixkaab Balam (known throughout as “Kaab”), the first daughter of a first daughter of a trading house from the South, which holds a monopoly on chocolate.

Like Swordspoint, Tremontaine is about political intrigue, the use and misuse of power, and gossip. There really isn’t much to the story, however: it revolves mostly around Diane’s efforts to save the Tremontaine fortune, which is at this point largely a matter of perception, and Kaab’s conflict between her duty to her family and her own desires.

And everyone has secrets, some of greater import than others. It is these secrets that drive the narrative, particularly those of Diane and Kaab: they are of enough substance to unsettle the whole status quo of the city, and in Diane’s case at least, are not made plain to the reader, at least not at first (Diane’s real secret, which is not the precarious financial condition of Tremontaine, involves an incident in her past that becomes fairly obvious to the reader well before the revelation). In the case of Rafe and Micah, the reader is apprised of their secrets early on: they are only secret to the other characters, and not for very long.

It’s much more a novel of character, or purports to be. One of the primary dicta of character building is “Don’t tell me what the character thinks, show me what the character does.” Regrettably, we get a lot of what the characters are thinking, perhaps because they don’t do much and much of what they do is offstage. There is a distinct lack of action in this story – this is not about swashbuckling heroes. That is not in itself a bad thing, but there has to be something else to take its place.

I really wanted to like this one better than I did. I suspect my reaction may be at least in part due to the length: at 673 pages there are a lot more words than story, and the only tension generated was in waiting for something to happen. And after all is said and done, the climax offers no real resolution: the status quo continues as it was, those secrets that need to be kept will be kept (at least until someone sees advantage in not keeping them), and life goes on.

(Saga Press, 2017)

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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