Following on from Swordspoint and The Privilege of the Sword, this is the third in Ellen Kushner’s series set in her broadly 18th-century city, around the nobles’ district of the Hill, the warren of Riverside and the halls of the University. The latter, which figured only briefly in the two previous novels, becomes the main setting here. I was rather charmed to find a fantasy book in which one of the main plot strands is a dispute over historical methodologies.
With Kushner’s earlier novels, I’ve gone to great lengths to explain that they’re not really fantasy at all, just forms of alternate history, but this book is a rather different beast from its predecessors. Co-authored with Delia Sherman, whose work I don’t know, it manages to keep the cheerfully decadent spirit of the earlier books while infusing it with something more chilling, darker and rather more grown-up. Tighter, richer, more sophisticated and full of detail, this isn’t as much of a joyful romp as the earlier books – Privilege in particular – but it gets deeper into your mind, and it’s strangely hard to shake off.
Set forty-odd years after the events of Privilege, the novel isn’t a strict sequel but, as characters from both the previous books crop up, it helps to read the three in sequence. Our protagonist is Basil St Cloud, a Doctor of Ancient History at the University, whose speciality lies in the rather niche field of the rise to power of the Northern Kings, in a past so distant that it is remembered primarily through ballads and fairy stories rather than hard evidence. Ever since the last King was killed, centuries ago, the city’s oligarchic rulers have dismissed the monarchy as a tyranny: the rule of mad, debauched men, advised by self-interested mystics who called themselves wizards and believed they were capable of magic. Common wisdom holds that they were deluded. Basil is beginning to wonder.
As he plunges deeper into the history of these earlier times, fuelled by academic rivalry with the unpleasant Doctor Crabbe, he begins to find evidence that the talk of wizards and magic is not simply a fairy story after all. Basil’s researches come at an opportune moment – so opportune, in fact, that something more than coincidence might be at work. There is unrest in the North itself; Northern students at the University sport oak-leaf badges and plan strange midwinter rituals; and the more vigilant members of the aristocracy are beginning to worry that all this might mean something. And, just to make Basil’s life more complicated, he falls into company with the beautiful Theron Campion: ‘son of a notorious rake, cousin of a public scandal, heir to a title that was a byword for madness‘. Son of Alec Campion, aka The Mad Duke Tremontaine, Theron is also a descendant of the man who killed the last king; and as the book gathers pace, he begins to suffer terrifying dreams about stags, horned men, oak groves, knives and sacrifices.
This was the aspect of the book I loved the most: this blend of magic, myth and ritual. The similar ancient traditions of our own world – king-sacrifice, sacred groves and the horned god of the hunt – fascinate me, and I really must sit down and read The Golden Bough one day in order to find out more. The Fall of the Kings even made me wonder whether I’ve been missing something in the myth of Actaeon: is that, presumably, some allegory of ritual hunting and sacrifice?
But I digress. Those of you who’ve read some of my other posts may remember that I tend to twitch when magic is introduced into perfectly absorbing ‘rational’ settings, but here I think it actually worked very well. It wasn’t magic so much as mystery (in the ancient sense of the word), and I loved the sense that something dark and ageless was bubbling under the surface. One of the few things that did jar slightly was Basil’s increasing use of more mystical language: it wasn’t always clear whether he was just flattering Theron by alluding to the ancient kings, or whether something else was ‘speaking’ through him. Nevertheless, for most of this book magic is merely a historian’s obscure theory. Except in the vague threat it poses to the status quo, it doesn’t have much impact on the tumultuous, hedonistic, glorious life that goes on all around, oblivious to Basil’s discoveries.
If you’ve read the other books, you might have some idea what to expect, and this novel delivers plenty of the familiar themes: complex intrigue, decadent nobles, a free-for-all attitude to sexuality, impoverished scholars and very pretty boys. (One of my favourite lines, incidentally: ‘He had nothing against debauchery in the abstract, but he was particular about the details‘ – very Wildean.) My one minor regret is that swordsmanship didn’t get much of a look-in this time round, although I don’t want to cavil too much when both art and history play large roles in the story. The sumptuously-described series of paintings by the artist Ysaud, showing elements of kingly rituals, sounded rather fabulous; though I fear that in real life they would probably make me blush.
One thing I enjoyed in The Privilege of the Sword was Kushner’s wonderfully idiosyncratic female characters. Even though the two protagonists of The Fall of the Kings are male, they are surrounded by a wealth of opinionated, unusual and determined women. Katherine made a reappearance, to my delight, having matured a bit since I last saw her (but still practising her sword-work); Theron’s mother Sophia is a fabulously single-minded surgeon, physician and scholar; and I was intrigued by the brief glimpse I got of Jessica, Alec Campion’s illegitimate daughter (who’d have thought Alec would’ve managed at least two children? I’m amazed). Combining the trades of art dealer, merchant, pirate and exotic traveller, Jessica seems to be a character worth hearing more about – especially considering her role towards the end of the book. And the tantalising ending makes me hope that perhaps we haven’t seen the last of Riverside and the Hill just yet…
A final salute has to go to Thomas Canty, whose covers for The Fall of the Kings and Swordspoint are as elegant and gorgeously alluring as the stories they describe.
You can’t really leap in with this book if you haven’t read the earlier ones, because you’d miss out on a lot of the references and cameo appearances by characters from the earlier novels. However, if you’ve enjoyed Swordspoint or Privilege, and have a taste for more of Kushner’s deliciously decadent world, rest assured that this is not only just as good but (despite my great personal affection for Privilege) surpasses the earlier novels both in power and quality.
Last in this series: The Privilege of the Sword