It's no secret that I absolutely adore Ellen Kushner's "Riverside" series, and "The Fall of the Kings" is perhaps the deepest and richest of the three. Co-written with Delia Sherman, "The Fall of the Kings" depicts the fine lines between history and legend, science and magic, obsession and love.
Theron Campion, elegant young nobleman-about-town, has recovered from his unhappy love affair with a scandalous artist, and is ready to indulge in a new romance with the idealistic young magister of history, Basil St Cloud. But St Cloud has an obsession of his own: the study of the ancient kings, their wizards, and their magic. But such a study is forbidden in the City, and Basil and Theron's passionate affair has dangerous ramifications neither could imagine.
The story in itself is glorious – I've never wanted so desperately to visit the City as I do now that the University district has come alive in such richness and vivid detail. As often as I've read and reread the Riverside books, it's always a treat to hear Ellen Kushner reading them! She knows just where to put the emphasis, and her narration is alternately gentle, amused, dreamlike, and sensual. (The romance here is between two men, so if that is something that might bother you, be forewarned.)
Ms Kushner has described the aesthetics of the "illumination" as, "You're listening to me read you the story, and then you start to dream it, that it's come to life...", and that's a perfect description. Nick Sullivan, whom I loved to hate as the villain in the other "Riverside" books ("Swordspoint" and "The Privilege of the Sword") is eminently swoonworthy as the idealistic Basil St Cloud, while Ryan McCabe conveys Theron's peculiarly innocent qualitities perfectly. The Student's Ensemble made me laugh out loud – they got it so very right! And Nate Tronerud's fabulous music adds so much depth and color to the tapestry. I think this has got to be my favorite of his three "Riverside" scores.
Listening to this audiobook was like a happy dream, but one which I'll get to enjoy over and over. Thank you, Ellen and Delia, for writing this book, and thank you, Neil Gaiman, for adding it to your Audible series! It will be a joy for years to come.
As you've probably noticed, I'm not very good at giving summaries of the books I read – that's what the Goodreads link is for. So my reviews are mostly about how the story engaged me intellectually and/or emotionally. I feel like I've been talking about the book for ages now, but I can't even begin to articulate how much I loved it. Of course a very big part of that was the narration, which was absolutely superb. When I've listened to audiobooks before, I've been familiar with the story, so my prior experience was more like enjoying a performance, rather than actually engaging with the story. For "The Scorpio Races", I had no idea beyond the bare bones – "Water-horses race, people die" – and so every nuance, every emotion was derived from what I was hearing.
It's a story full of almost unbearable tension – the tension of the upcoming Scorpio Race, where each day leading up the race, horses and riders die, and others will most certainly die during the race itself; the tension of the main characters, Sean and Kate, and the desperation of their hardscrabble lives; the relationship between Sean and Corr, the deadly water-horse he rides; the almost unbearable tension of Sean and Kate's romance-that-is -not-a-romance. I mentioned last week that I felt it was dragging, but then I realized that that was actually an element of the slow-build towards the climax, the race itself and its aftermath. I got to the point where I actually devoted three hours to finish listening to the book – I simply could not bear to wait any longer.
It's not a retelling of Celtic mythology, though its origins are there. It's a story of elementals – fiery Kate, Sean (and Corr) as Water, Kate's fae-like younger brother Finn as Air, and the island setting, Thisby, as Earth. There's also a strong sense of Sean and Kate as deities, fated to meet and mate. Their scenes together (each told in first-person) bear all the confusion of two young people who are not quite socially adept, but instinctively understand the depths of each other's hearts.
I'm particularly glad, too, that this story was self-contained, and not part of a trilogy – I don't know that I could have borne to wait for a resolution! Though I would dearly love, and look forward to, more of Sean and Kate, Corr and Finn and Thisby.
(To be honest, I don't know if simply reading the book would have had the same impact. I checked it out from my library as a downloadable audiobook. (Oh brave new world! To have such technology in it!) and knew well before I finished it that I wanted it, but the Audible price for non-members was daunting. Fortunately, it was available for the Kindle at a very reasonable price, with the Whisper-Sync available. I knew of Whisper-sync, but hadn't ever tried it. How it works is, after you buy the Kindle edition, the Audible edition is available at a greatly reduced price. So I have both a printed (which will be invaluable come Yuletide) and the audio edition. If this technology is available to you, I highly recommend it! )
Ellen Kushner's "The Privilege of the Sword", an Austen-esque tale spiced with romance (and swordfights!) is a delight from start to finish.
Artemisia, a gently-reared young lady of the nobility, discovers to her shock that the process of Growing Up actually equates to "being marketed as a valuble commodity", and that she herself has no real say over the consummation of the deal. Katherine, fresh from the country, looks forward to a conventional coming-out, as befits her family's rank; however, her guardian in the City is the definitely un-conventional Mad Duke Tremontaine, and he has very different plans for her. In desperate straits, Mia finds in Katherine a lifeline, while Katherine views Mia's circumstances with horror, and finds herself feeling more than a little gratitude to her uncle for making sure she doesn't suffer similar circumstances.
Woven all around this is Kushner's rich tapestry of Riverside and the Hill, the Mad Duke Tremontaine and his outrageous antics, a delightful cast of supporting characters (Lord Michael Godwin and his lady, Rosamund, are a particular delight), and of course, Tremontaine's love for the swordsman St Vier at the heart of it all.
If you are a fan of Ellen Kushner's books, you already know all that! So let me speak now specifically about the audiobook version.
The presentation as an "illuminated audiobook" is a delight from beginning to end. Ellen Kushner as Katherine's first-person narrator, and Barbara Rosenblat as the Narrator, are perfectly droll. Felicia Day's Katherine is as fresh and vibrant as any fifteen-year-old you might know. Katherine Kellgren reads a variety of female parts, each of them distinct and amusing, while Nick Sullivan, who we loved to hate as Lord Ferris in the "Swordspoint" audiobook, reprises that role here, even more wonderfully despicable. Joe Hurley's Tremontaine is deliciously decadent-sounding. (If you're a TPOTS fan, and you're wondering, Ellen Kushner narrates the well-loved "Highcombe" scene. It's heartrending.)
A particularly enjoyable aspect of the "illuminated audiobook" is Nate Tronerud's original soundtrack music (which also incorporates some of his well-loved themes from the "Swordspoint" audiobook. Although we only get to hear bits and pieces, each theme is unique and memorable, perfectly highlighting character and mood.
I came late to the Bordertown books, discovering them as an adult, but once I did I collected them assiduously on Amazon and eBay and devoured them greedily. I was delighted when I learned that there would a new collection, and that Ellen Kushner, my favorite writer, would be one of the editors.
The Bordertown series was the first of the "Urban Fantasy" genre, set in a world very close to our own contemporary world, rather than faux-medieval-Earth or some other planet entirely. So the issues of gang violence, racism, and political and economic inequalities, are just as real in this world as they are in ours, and present in a way that are very relevant to young readers (as well as older ones).
The premise is that Bordertown has been closed off from the world, for thirteen years in world time, but only thirteen days in Bordertown. This plays into a number of stories, most significantly the opening, "Welcome to Bordertown", by Ellen Kushner and Teri Windling. In this story, a little boy waits thirteen years to grow up and journey to Bordertown in search of his sister. When he is reunited with her, they have both made surprising discoveries about themselves.
I liked most everything in this anthology, but I loved "A Tangle of Green Men" by Charles de Lint, "Incunabulum", by Emma Bull, and particularly "We Do Not Come in Peace" by Christopher Barzak.
The performances of the narrators Cassandra Campbell, MacLeod Andrews, and Ellen Kushner, are particularly noteworthy. Kushner's reading of "Soulja Grrrl: A Long Line Rap" by Jane Yolen made me howl with laughter. Andrews' interpretation of the narrator, Marius of "We Do Not Come in Peace" was a perfect portrayal of a disillusioned young man who considered himself beaten down by life in Bordertown. Campbell's multiple dialects in Nalo Hopkinson's "Ours is the Prettiest" were loads of fun.
If you are planning a summer trip with kids in the YA age group, this would be a great and thoughtful introduction to the genre of "Urban Fantasy", and something the whole family could enjoy.
A story I've loved for years becomes even more vivid in audio form. The addition of voice actors and music, in addition to Ms Kushner's superb reading, makes the magic of Riverside come even more alive. I've waited years for this title to appear as an audiobook, and this was well worth the wait.
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