Serial Box is another way to consume entertainment, pairing the pleasure of episodic television with the joy of a well-written book. Serial Box provides original works of written fiction in the form of a “season,” 10-16 chapters or episodes, released weekly. Like television, they use the metaphor of a “writers room,” and each work is produced by a team of writers, rather than an individual writer. It’s an interesting concept. Serial Box is the first to admit that serialized work is not new (Charles Dickens, anyone?), but it’s a nice use of current technology. Their serials can be read as text or listened to pod-cast style.
Tremontaine was one of the first series Serial Box offered. Ellen Kushner was one of six writers working on Tremontaine Season One. The others are Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Patty Bryant, Racheline Maltese, and Paul Witcover.
I ordered the entire Tremontaine Season One as a paperback and read it as a novel. Part of my dissatisfaction with it came from that experience; I think some of the minor irritations, most notably repetitions, would be far less noticeable if I had read one “episode” per week.
Tremontaine Season One is set fifteen years before Kushner’s novel Swordspoint and follows three characters in the City: Diane, the Duchess of Tremontaine; Rafe Fenton, a university student, and Ixkaab of Balam, a chocolate trader from another continent that looks a lot like the Americas. Their storylines intersect over the course of thirteen chapters that run about 15,000 words on average (some are longer).
The house of Tremontaine took serious financial losses when a merchant ship sank and the Duchess is trying to recoup them. Ixkaab, who is a trader and a spy for her trading family, wants to protect her family’s monopoly of chocolate exporting to the City. Rafe has a natural science theory he wants to prove, and then he falls in love with William, the Duke of Tremontaine.
The most interesting secondary character is Micah, a young county girl in the city, who is a math genius. Disguised as a boy, Micah is taken up by the university students because she has a gift for winning card games, and because she is a genius. Micah is a problematic character for some of the writers. She is neuro-atypical. In some of these novellas, Micah convinces me that she is somewhere on the autism spectrum. In the hands of others she reads more like an innocent, much younger girl (eleven or twelve). This wobbliness broke my suspension of disbelief. Beyond the problem of Micah’s characterization, tone in general is a problem, changing from episode to episode, and sometimes clashing with the previous chapter, as it does most noticeably in Episode Seven, “The Swan Ball.”
Issues that are raised early as serious plot points are resolved with a graceful hand-wave later in the book. One example is Rafe’s dilemma when he first meets Duke William. The nobles are meeting to pass a law that will give them more control over the university; specifically, choosing who sits on the panels that listen to what is basically a student’s thesis defense. This will negatively impact Rafe’s ability to become a Master. Rafe is loudly participating in a student demonstration when he meets and becomes infatuated with the handsome, languid Duke William. After they become lovers, William confides to Rafe that he voted for the change, but promises that he’ll revisit the topic. As far as we know, he never does this, but sometime later in the book Rafe sails through his thesis defense and gets his Master status. Did he sacrifice his academic integrity? Did the Duke pull strings behind the scenes? Did pure scholarship prevail? I have no idea.
The fact that ocean navigation is affected if you know the Earth is a sphere is a big point, one that Ixkaab’s people are desperate to hide from the nobles to protect their advantage, but the City gets other exotic spices, notably saffron and turmeric, so presumably they trade with other overseas cultures. The cat’s got to be out of the bag on the Earth-is-round thing, right?
Then, sometimes, the story forces characters to behave stupidly in order to serve Tremontaine’s plot. The main characteristic of the Duchess of Tremontaine is her intelligence, and her ability to strategize. The Duchess takes risks, but they are strategic ones, meant always to strengthen her own position and improve the fortunes of the house of Tremontaine. In “The Swan Ball” the Duchess does something stupid, mainly so that another character can see something that will play into the plot later. The risk she takes in the episode is not justified by her own motivations or the story.
The Duchess is quite clear that what she resents about Rafe is not that he’s taken William’s body or his heart, but that he’s weakened the Duchess’s control over William. I would accept that if I saw a real love match, but the relationship between Rafe and William never progresses beyond the physical infatuation stage. This love affair supposedly goes on for months without ever deepening. This storyline did not convince me.
The shifts in tone, the inconsistency in characterization and the plot jerkiness made for an uneven read, one that would probably be slightly ameliorated by reading one episode per week. The stakes didn’t seem believable, though, and characters’ behaviors didn’t always convince. At one point I seriously thought, “Why don’t I just dig out my copy of Dangerous Liaisons and re-read that?”
I also realized, while reading Tremontaine, that magic can’t always be re-created. Swordspoint is one of my favorite books, but none of the related RIVERSIDE books have satisfied me as much. I think I’ll stop visiting the world of Riverside and the house of Tremontaine for a while.
I should also point out that RIVERSIDE has thousands of loyal fans and many of them love this series. If you’re one of them, ignore everything I’ve written about Tremontaine and go sign up for Serial Box. I do recommend doing the podcasts or something other than the paperback format.
I am interested in Serial Box. The website offers some other interesting works, and I plan to check some of them out. In the meantime, I wish the people of Riverside, and the decadent nobles up on the Hill, good luck and good day.