Ellen Kushner's "The Privilege of the Sword", an Austen-esque tale spiced with romance (and swordfights!) is a delight from start to finish. <..Show More »br/>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.
Often fantasy fiction relies on escapism through the fantastic, so it’s refreshing when you come across a book like The Fall of the Kings that kind of..Show More » skewers that the fantastic necessarily equates escape. The Fall of the Kings is very much a left turn from Swordspoint. Instead of centering around the violent, sexy swordsmen nobles contract to fight duels on their behalf, this book focuses on the politics of university and scholarship, trading swordplay for academic debates, with charismatic professors. Really, it’s the Dead Poet’s Society of Wizarding History, and it’s a fascinating study for fantasy fans.
The story is primarily about two men: Basil St. Cloud, a renegade scholar determined on discovering the hidden, taboo truths of the ancient kings (who were overthrown and executed by the nobles hundreds of years earlier) and their wizards. That’s right, wizards. It appears there just might be magic in Riverside, or there once was. And ever since the Fall of the Kings, even the discussion of magic has been outlawed (a detail that neatly explains why magic was so completely absent from Swordspoint). St. Cloud soon enters into a romantic relationship with aristocratic student Theron Campion – the son of the Mad Duke of Tremontaine – who bears resemblance to some of the ancient kings Basel has studied. Together their discoveries and passions concerning the secret truths of magic, the kings, and their wizards threaten to have consequences. To some degree, it puts me in mind of China Miéville’s The City & The City, and M. John Harrison’s In Viriconium (the last novel of the Viriconium cycle). It’s a novel that is very much playing against type, and questioning our typical expectations and desires of the fantastic. Will magic come back to the land? Is that really a good thing?
I’ve talked a lot about this being a sequel to Swordspoint, but I hadn’t realized until about halfway through the book that while this novel takes place some 60 years after The Privilege of the Sword, it was published four years before that novel was. I didn’t find it anywhere near as accessible and delightful as The Privilege of the Sword, or as thrilling as Swordspoint, but I don’t think that’s really the point. It’s a love letter to academia, and I think it’s more challenging than the other two books (and I mean that as a compliment). I’m also somewhat astonished by how little violence there is for the majority of this novel – something that pleases me in a genre that seems to depend on violence in order to be entertaining (and I say that as someone who is usually entertained by good fantasy novels, but also as someone who has noticed a disturbing trend).
Kushner’s narration is excellent (of course!) and the illuminated cast general does very solid work, as does the illuminated cast (I particularly liked the actor who played Justice Blake). I’m pretty bummed this is the final book in the series, partially due to how unique Kushner and Sue Zizza make this listening experience). My only complaint about the narration is a very odd one – it takes a little bit of work to hear Nick Sullivan, who played the deliciously wicked Lord Ferris in the other two Riverside novels, as the romantic historian hero St. Cloud. That’s not to take anything away from how strong his performance is here – it’s nice to hear Sullivan not be such a monster for a change. But Lord Ferris’ shadow always seems to be lingering whenever Sullivan began talking. (Though this was probably emphasized by me listening to this novel right after The Privilege of the Sword.)
In the final analysis, The Fall of the Kings is a unique kind of fantasy novel – one that challenges our expectations concerning magic and escapism in fantasy fiction. While I don’t think I enjoyed it quite as much as I did the other books in this series, I do appreciate that it did something very different from what we’re used to in fantasy fiction, and I found that refreshing.