Let's start with Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint. You remember the swordsman Richard St. Vier and his lover Alec, later Duke Tremontaine. Unless, of course, you confine yourself to the sorts of fantasy novels that make effective doorstops. But if you love fine language, inventive plotting, and characters more real and certainly more beautiful than the ones you see each morning on the subway -- if, that is, you love the tradition of fantasy from George MacDonald to Patricia McKillip -- then you probably keep a copy of Swordspoint on your bedside table, ready in case you catch the flu or have a particularly difficult day at work. If you don't, then beg, borrow, or buy a copy (fortunately, Swordspoint is about to be reissued in a new edition) so you can wander around the City, drinking beer and quarrelling with pickpockets at a bar in Riverside, taking chocolate and gossip with the aristocrats on the Hill.
The swordsman and the Duke are not the main characters in The Fall of the Kings; this novel takes place a generation after the events of Swordspoint. But their presence is felt. Alec's son Theron Campion, whom we first met in his mother's belly in the short story "The Death of the Duke," sees the swordsman's ghost practicing in a room of his Riverside mansion. And, like Swordspoint, this novel is a love story, as passionate, although not quite as safe or sane, as Tremontaine's and St. Vier's.
It is also a book about scholarship. Campion is a student at the University, where professors teach the ancient history of the country, based on official chronicles. (Reading excerpts from these chronicles, in suitably archaic language, is part of the pleasure of The Fall of the Kings.) Long ago, these chronicles tell us, the wild and infertile North, ruled by kings and their wizards, united with the prosperous South. Once the country was united, however, the royal lineage began to degenerate. The Northern kings went mad, and their wizards, charlatans who maintained their reputation for magic through trickery and a network of spies, oppressed the people. The aristocratic families, who had long ruled the South, overthrew the last of the Northern kings, returning peace and security to the country. Or so say the chronicles. Professor Basil St. Cloud is not so sure. His unorthodox methods, which involve searching through the University Archives rather than accepting the chronicles as truth, turn up evidence that the wizards' magic might have been real after all, and that the kings might have had a mystical connection to the land that maintained its health and vitality.
Campion is a student of rhetoric, not history; he seems less interested in St. Cloud's theories than in Basil himself. In a series of seductive and explosive encounters, the two become lovers. But Theron is an aristocrat dabbling in scholarship until he takes up his duties as Duke Tremontaine. Basil is a commoner whose father lives on Tremontaine land, and his passion for scholarship is as strong as his passion for Theron. Their relationship must remain hidden, both from Theron's powerful relatives and from Basil's students.
Enter politics. Although Basil is slowly coming to believe in the ancient kings, they have always had their followers, young men from the North who braid their hair and wear emblems shaped like oak leaves to signal their allegiance. These Companions of the King, practicing what they believe to be sacred rituals, seem picturesque and ineffective. But when they turn their attention to Theron, who is descended from the last of the Northern kings as well as the Duke Tremontaine responsible for his death, the ancient legends begin to seem frighteningly real after all. The aristocrats on the Hill have a considerable interest in maintaining that the chronicles are correct; in the City, even proposing that magic exists is against the law. When Basil begins teaching his theories and the Companions of the King begin to attend his lectures, Lord Nicholas Galing is sent to spy on the University. And Lord Nicholas does not like Theron Campion at all.
The Fall of the Kings is considerably longer than Swordspoint. What has been added is historical and political detail. In Swordspoint we were shown a fascinating foreground of passion and swordplay. Now, the background has been filled in. Once again the City has come, beautifully and triumphantly, to life, but this time there are so many details to notice: the traditions of the University, whose scholars wear black robes, with colored sleeves for the professors (Basil, as a historian, wears green); the winter celebrations with their Harvest Fires and Stag Dances, remnants of fertility rites in which the King and his Companions have become dolls of woven straw; and the food, lots of food, including a scholars' supper of claret and jellied eels. (It is tempting to speculate that this richness is due, in part, to Delia Sherman's precise sense for historical detail, but the novel is so seamless that you will forget it is a collaboration.)
What you will notice, more than anything else, are the characters, described in crisp detail even when of minor importance. The aged Doctor Tortua, who has himself written a book called The Fall of the Kings, escapes being arrested for arguing that the wizards' magic was real only through his supposed senility. The painter Ysaud, Theron's former mistress, completes a series of paintings whose lasciviousness is their least scandalous quality, in which Theron enacts the rituals of the Northern kings. His half-sister Lady Jessica, daughter of Alec and an actress known as the Black Rose, once scandalized the City herself by choosing the life of a merchant seawoman -- but quickly becomes both exasperated by Theron's antics and concerned about their effect on the Tremontaines. In The Fall of the Kings, every character becomes important to a plot whose unexpected turns will startle the most careful reader. My favorite characters are not doctors, artists, or aristocrats, but ordinary people who remain faithful to their convictions despite political turmoil: the student Justis Blake, who places his faith in the research methods of Basil St. Cloud, and a charmingly adolescent Lady Francesca, who does not enjoy balls and would very much like to be a novelist.
Although The Fall of the Kings is most definitely the sort of fantasy that allows you to escape from the everyday world of traffic and copy machines and credit card bills, it is also a subtle novel that comments on fantasy itself. On one hand, its lyricism and inventiveness come from the fantasy tradition; on the other, its focus on historical and political movements, and its attention to the everyday lives of its characters, connect it to the tradition of literary realism. This is what Dickens or Eliot might have written, if they had written fantasy. Indeed, its connections seem strongest with the father of historical fiction, Sir Walter Scott. The Companions of the King resemble Scott's Highlanders, nostalgic for a past before the North united with the more peaceful South. Their attempts to revive that past, with its rituals and magic, could disrupt modern civilization and the standards by which it functions: comfort, cynicism, and the sort of diplomacy practiced by its aristocratic rulers, which we might as well call intrigue and espionage.
But this is our world also: a world of politicians, with no use for harvest rituals or sacred kings. To the extent that we, as fantasy readers, want to believe in an ancient magic, we become like Scott's Highlanders or the Companions of the King. The price of finding that magic may be our civility, our sanity, the orderliness of our institutions. The price of not finding it may be the loss of our connection with a living land, a life without meaning that becomes a kind of charade. The Fall of the Kings is sophisticated enough to provide us with no solution to that dilemma.
Go out now and buy The Fall of the Kings. Put it on your nightstand next to Swordspoint. When it's been raining all day and you are bored beyond endurance, pick it up and enter a world as complicated as our own, and considerably more colorful. Just remember to make plenty of chocolate.
Theodora Goss' stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Realms of Fantasy, Dreams of Decadence, Mythic Delirium, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Alchemy. She is working on a Ph.D. in English literature, with a focus on Victorian gothic. She lives in Boston with her husband, who is a molecular biologist, and four cats who like to eat her manuscripts. For more about her, visit her Web Site. Her previous contributions to Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.
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