This delicately drawn tale takes place between the high and low neighborhoods of a fantasized city vaguely like 16th-17th century Europe. As with all good fairy tales, there's blood, squalor, beauty, mystery, and maybe even a wicked witch of sorts, although no spells or sorcery. The protagonist, Richard St. Vier, is a swordsman, and thus, a professional killer, and he does what no professional killer should ever do--he falls in love. The object of his affection is Alec, a brittle, self-destructive, secretive refugee from university. When Richard and Alec inadvertently become entangled in the complex political maneuvers and personal vendettas of the city's nobility, trouble (and occasional mayhem) ensues.
The great strength of the book is its exquisite prose, perfectly polished, each phrase lovingly considered; the description of the fireworks at a party is enough to take your breath away. And then its primary characters: Richard and Alec are both so damaged that they can barely make up one heart between them, but their flaws and their strengths are realistically portrayed, and you want them to win for each other's sake.
This is not a "world-building" fantasy. Everything in it, all the jockeying for power, even the many vibrant and detailed secondary characters, is set dressing for the drama involving the lovers, although it's gorgeous set dressing. Wondering exactly how the Council of Lords got that way, or why there's a Dragon Chancellor or a Crescent Chancellor? You'll never know. You'll get just enough detail to work out the unfolding situation and no more. You won't even learn how Richard and Alec found each other in the first place, because it doesn't matter to the plot. This leads to what I consider the book's major flaw: because the supporting action is so richly presented, it's a disappointment when parts of it fail to resolve. In particular, we spend a lot of time with a secondary character who then gets shuffled offstage with only an inconclusive parting glance, and we're left to surmise about his fate, despite his prior importance.
All of which won't matter at all if you find the prose and the lovers sufficiently compelling, which I certainly did, and even if all the political plots don't entirely unfold, they're still great fun to watch.
Performance-wise, Kushner is an excellent reader of her own work. This recording is partially dramatized, with actors reading the characters in selected scenes and added sound effects. It's pleasant enough, particularly with the musical interludes, but occasionally an annoyance (oy, whose idea was it to use an old mechanical typewriter to imitate the sound of a crackling fire?), and by and large I don't think I would have missed it; Kushner does well enough on her own.
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