Flawed but magnificent: Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman’s The Fall of the Kings

The Fall of the Kings is set forty years after The Privilege of the Sword and fifty-five years after Swordspoint. It was published in 2002, four years before Privilege, but I think it makes most sense to read them in internal chronological order.

A splatter of red on a discarded boot. Milky blue glass lying shattered in a pool of water. Garlands of greenery swirling everywhere, with little eddies of leaves torn loose from them. And everywhere the sheets, torrents of white fabric lying in fantastic patterns, twisted and ruched, almost spinning, creating lines dipped in and out of shadow, now black, now white, following the logic of the candles placed above them, interrupted here and there by the crosshatching of random streaks of harsh, dull red.

The sheets spilled over the edge of a platform; in front of it, a naked man, streaked in the same red, his long hair matted in it, but clotted also with bits of ochre and vermilion, burnt sienna and indigo.

The woman watching him from across the room was silent. She was dressed from neck to ankle in a plain white smock, smeared in places with the same colors. Her hair was bound up with a twisted scarf, leaving her face a clear and perfect oval.

“Theron,” she said. “You moved. I have particularly asked you not to do that.”

(Prologue to The Fall of the Kings).

The Fall of the Kings is about Theron Campion, son of Alec the Mad Duke and heir presumptive to Tremontaine. It’s also about his friends at University, his lovers, his friends and family, and the whole constellation of the city. By this time the city, which in Swordspoint was barely more than a fairytale, has also developed history and economics and whole new layers of complexity. The world has also developed magic and this book has a much wider plot than the others.

I don’t know if the magic is Sherman’s addition. Certainly Sherman’s solo work does tend to have excellent magic, and the magic here is done beautifully. It’s some of the best written, most magical magic you might ever wish to find. And yet, it doesn’t quite belong with either the other books in the series or even with the other parts of this book. It’s numinous all right, but the more often I re-read it, the more I feel it has a different weight from the rest of the story, and that weight distorts it.

A little whole after I’d first read it, probably when they were planning the paperback, I was asked by Ellen and Delia if I’d like to say something nice about it as a blurb. What I said was that reading it felt like seeing a stained glass window or a tapestry come to life. I entirely stand by that comment, which is still how I think about the book when I’m not reading it — but it’s a comment about the magical parts of the book. The rest of the book is the same light interplay of intrigue and love and fantasy of manners as the other two books… and it’s brilliant, and it almost works as a combination.

There’s a whole tangle of stories threaded together to make the tapestry that is this novel. There’s a terrific one about the University quarter of the city and the lives of the scholars. We knew it existed since Swordspoint, but now we see it close up and it’s wonderful. Within the university there’s Justis Blake and his quest for good methodology, there’s Henry Fremont who betrays his friends and then thinks better of it, and there’s Lindley and the Northerners who want to bring back the King. There’s also the story about Doctor Basil St Cloud, son of a farmer from Highcombe, who becomes a wizard and chooses a candidate for king. Then there’s the story of Theron Campion trying to be himself and a scholar despite his famous dead father and his living anxious relatives, and finding out that getting involved with other people might be different but isn’t any simpler. Outside the University there’s the story of Nicholas Galing, who’s investigating the university for sedition, and finding it, too, and the story of Katherine, Duchess Tremontaine, and her complicated family.

The central heart of the novel is not the fall but the possible restoration of the kings. The other two books have intimate small-scale plots. This one potentially has a huge world-changing one, of the restoration of the kings and of magic. The country could stop being an oligarchy and become a kingdom again!

(This did not strike me as an inherently bad idea. It’s totally unrepresentative and undemocratic as it is, and the old kings, mad as they may have been, did at least pay more attention to the needs of the lower orders than the nobles seem to. Indeed, I thought that the narrative was leading towards a constitutional monarchy where the king would speak for the horribly oppressed ordinary people, who might get a share of government. I continue to hope this might happen in later volumes.)

Yet at the last minute the narrative shies away and gives us a small scale ending—yet again our Campion hero abandons his responsibilities.

I realised as I was re-reading this volume this time that what I had, in the three volumes, was a very odd family saga. People have compared Kushner to Dorothy Dunnett, and there are certainly resemblances. What I was especially noticing though is the way in which people are interesting on first introduction because you know who their grandparents were, more like Du Maurier’s The Loving Spirit or Galsworthy’s The Forstye Saga. And there’s nothing wrong with that, in fact it’s very interesting—I found myself wondering if, in another volume, we will get the full story of Jessica growing up and becoming a pirate.  A family saga, full of tiny intimate stories across generations, is a standard form of literature, but it’s fairly unusual in genre. So as The Fall of Kings on the one hand makes the Riverside books more conventional—magic and a larger scale plot—it also makes them more unusual by demonstrating their family saga nature.

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