Ellen Kushner published Swordspoint in 1987. It gathered a swarm of fans who loved the prose, the magicless world with its glittering veneer and cloak-and-dagger intrigue, and the love story at its center. Readers clamored to know more of steadfast, enigmatic swordsman Richard St.Vier and his lover, the brilliant, neurotic noble Alec Campion.
In 2003, Ellen Kushner, writing with Delia Sherman, published The Fall of the Kings. Although it was nominated for a Mythopoeic Award and a Locus Award, The Fall of the Kings vanished from consciousness like a ship in the Bermuda triangle. I think I know why.
The Fall of the Kings takes place about fifty years after Swordspoint. Marcus makes an appearance, and we meet Alec’s niece Katherine, the protagonist of The Privilege of the Sword, although she is hard to recognize here. I’m glad I didn’t read The Fall of the Kings earlier because it would have soured me on this series. The Privilege of the Sword, published in 2006, was a more engaging and enjoyable book. My two-star rating here indicates the gap between my expectations of this book and my experience of it.
Three elements doomed this book for me.
One is simply the number of books, or number of types of books, The Fall of the Kings wants to be. There is a political book about a planned coup. There is an academic quest with a bold scholar challenging the hidebound rules of an atrophying university that fears anything new. There is a romance novel with a handsome noble who loves and then betrays his professor lover. There is a story about magic returning to the land and demanding a price. There is a comic novel about student hijinks; there is a family saga. These elements are supposed to connect. They never quite did, and the plots, and the points of view, shift accordingly until we reach a completely unsatisfactory ending.
“Magic returning to the land” seems to drive the political plot, the romance plot and the academic plot, which led to the biggest flaw in the book for me. Suddenly we readers are asked to believe in British-Isles-based agrarian pagan magic, one that has never been discussed or hinted at before. The book counts on the reader’s knowledge of a magical system that never previously existed in-world. There is a lot of “retconning” here that didn’t work for me.
Sherman and Kushner are brilliant writers who focus on different things in their stories. In this work, the styles do not mesh, either at the level of story-telling or even prose style. This led to arrhythmic pacing and baffling changes in tone. The Fall of the Kings gives us dozens of characters, but only one, magister and scholar Basil St. Cloud, comes close to being as nuanced, sympathetic or compelling as either Alec Campion or Richard St. Vier.
There is lovely prose here and lush, ornate descriptions, and the Bantam edition does have one of those lush Thomas Canty covers; those are pluses, but this is a book for completists only. For the rest of us, I recommend some of the shorter works in this series, and I’ll let you know what I think of Swordspoint’s prequel novel, Tremontaine, which I ordered recently from Serial Box.