Diane, Duchess of Tremontaine, is a force to be reckoned with. Beautiful, beguiling, and clever, she dictates the fashions and scandals of the nobility on the Hill with a single word or glance. She is, simply put, far too powerful a woman for anyone to suspect her of politics. Amid parties and dinners, however, Diane moves trade and policy in deft secrecy, trusting that others—her oblivious husband, most of all—will not see past her beauty and station.
But there are other players on the stage: Kaab, a swaggering spy that arrives in Riverside on a ship filled to the brim with chocolate, the city’s most precious import; Micah, a math genius casually masquerading as a boy so she can study stars at the University; and Rafe, scholar, trader’s son, and above all the lover of William, Duke of Tremontaine. Between squalid pubs and lavish balls, aristocratic mansions and blood-washed streets, these characters will navigate Diane’s web of secrecy. They do so for love, to change the world, or to find their places in it. Only in their dark, inscrutable cups of chocolate will they see the cunning hand of the Duchess that connects them all.
Originally published by Serial Box, Tremontaine is a story in parts. Saga now presents Season 1 of the series, collected for the first time in one volume. What’s more, Ellen Kushner has returned to Riverside this time with an army: Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Patty Bryant, Racheline Maltese, and Paul Witcover have joined Kushner to create a prequel to Swordspoint more dazzling and provocative than you can imagine.
There is a short scene in Swordspoint that has stayed vivid in my mind since I first read it over a decade ago. In this scene, a young ex-scholar named Alec is out of his head on a combination of drugs and grief, and he reveals why he left the University, crying to his lover, “Consider the angle of the sun: the stars describe an arc without a tangent—but they’re watching, all the time they’re watching me—.” Other authors might spin this moment out—it is, after all, a revelation about Alec’s past and a critical piece of worldbuilding to boot—but Kushner balances it on the tip of a dagger. Scientific discovery and the University’s censorship of it are not mentioned again. Still, the profundity, pain, and isolation that their mention implies completes Alec’s character. It’s a brilliant bit of writing, necessarily leaving its reader wanting more. One can imagine, then, my excitement when Tremontaine opens on a passionate young student obsessing over the earth’s rotation around the sun.
Scientific discovery is at the heart of Tremontaine, even amidst the intrigue and passion. Rafe knows—knows—that the sun is at the center of things. He doesn’t have the maths to prove it just yet, but he found a savant playing cards in a pub and set the boy to task. Soon, he’ll make his mark on the academy and disappoint his merchant father in one fell swoop. He doesn’t stop to consider, though, that these might be mutually exclusive goals—navigation and trade, after all, are dictated by the stars. His discovery may well change the entire economy, and broaden the little world of his city into a sprawling constellation of continents.
Not, of course, if Kaab has anything to do with it. Kaab arrives on the shore of Riverside like many a good Riversider has done before her: disgraced by her family, and thirsty to prove her own worth. The Balam family, as secretive as they are wealthy, has a firm monopoly on their trade with the Xanamwiinik. She’s lucky, really, that the first friends that she makes in this new land—Rafe and Micah—are poised to undo all of that. Who better to stop them than a clever spy whose lover is a forger? If she feels guilty as she passes false numbers and redrawn maps to Micah, she swallows it down. Maneuvering the traps and plots of the Duchess of Tremontaine is more than enough to keep her busy.
It isn’t necessary to read Swordspoint or its other Riverside brethren—The Privilege of the Sword and The Fall of the Kings—in order to understand or enjoy Tremontaine. However, there are many reasons that you shouldn’t deny yourself the pleasure. Perhaps the greatest is the mere act of witnessing Kushner’s world grow in both scope and depth. The new authors on this project are not ghostwriting by any stretch of the imagination, but are instead breathing new life into Riverside. It is more diverse than ever before, and more bursting with ideas and strangeness. A world outside of the city was only hinted at in Kushner’s previous novels, and in Tremontaine we glimpse the universe. This zooming-out effect is absolutely enrapturing for a long-time fan; not to mention the pleasure I gained from the gentle corrections it is making to the Very White originals. There is no attempt here to wallpaper over the series’ previous colorblindness. Instead, it is incorporated as an act of worldbuilding, and—more importantly—turned on its head by a cast of flawed and lovable characters. Kaab’s brownness and Micah’s (implied) autism are not mere facts about the characters either, but aspects of them that reciprocally shape the world they inhabit. And, as dependably as the earth revolving around the sun, Riverside remains one of the queerest fantasy series on the market.
Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the serialized aspect of Tremontaine as well. The novel was not, I’m happy to say, Dickensian in its pacing or paid-by-the-wordcount. It was markedly different from its non-serialized predecessors, however. Connections and revelations are made much earlier than in the traditionally-published Riverside novels, lending each chapter its own individual arc in addition to its connection to the larger story. The transitions between authorial styles and devices (some, for instance, are more rigid in their chronology, while some utilize flashbacks or nonlinear machinations) would likely feel more natural if I were reading the chapters as they were released instead of binge-reading them.
While I was aware of the specificities of its format, though, they never bothered me; if anything, the sensation of plowing through each “episode” bore with it the excitement and fulfillment of marathoning a good TV series. I loved reading Tremontaine as a singular novel, and yet my enjoyment of it dictates that I now read everything else that’s been released so far. And so to Serial Box I go!
Emily Nordling is a library assistant and perpetual student in Chicago, IL.