The Fall of the Kings
by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman
Bantam, 2002, ISBN 0-553-38184-9
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
Fifteen years ago, Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint delighted appreciative readers with complex, interesting characters, a richly textured setting, and a fantasy novel with no magic at all. The Fall of the Kings admits magic into the picture, but the characters are as interesting, and the setting at least as textured and lived-in.
It's sixty years later, and Alec Campion, now remembered as the Mad Duke, has been dead for twenty years. Before he died, though, he brought back from his travels a wife, Sophia, who gave birth to a son a few months after the Mad Duke's death. That posthumous son, Theron, is heir to his cousin Katherine, the Duchess Tremontaine. Theron and his mother live, not in Tremontaine House, but in Riverside House, the great house Alec built where the little house he once lived in with Richard St. Vier had stood. The Riverside neighborhood has ha d some of the edge taken off of it by the effects of the presence of a great household, and the civilizing influence of Sophia. (Sophia, not long after arriving in the city, successfully badged the University into letting her study medicine, and operates a clinic for the residents of Riverside.) It's still a rough and dangerous place, though, and naturally Theron likes it better than the Hill, where all proper young noblemen belong.
He likes the University even better, especially after he meets Basil St. Cloud, a magister who teaches, and studies, ancient history--the early history of the Kings who came down from the north and ruled with wizards by their sides. Everyone knows that the wizards were charlatans and the kings were dupes and puppets. Basil wonders if everyone is right, and persists in his academically unfashionable practice of reading contemporary documents rather than just the official and unofficial histories, until he find a very dangerous book.
Meanwhile, as Basil and Theron become lovers, the Serpent Chancellor, Lord Arlen, becomes concerned about a possible northern plot to restore the kings. He sets an ambitious young nobleman, Lord Nicholas Galing, to investigate. Galing quickly becomes less interested in finding out if there's a plot than in proving that Theron and Basil are part of it.
The politics of the city and the politics of the University are sticky and intricate, and get more so when they become tangled up in each other. Theron's idealism and his self-absorption both feel quite convincingly real. The same is true of Basil, who really isn't very many years older, and in some ways is even less realistic than Theron about what he can get away. No one in this story is perfect, and no one in it is just a cardboard bad guy, either. These are real people, with real motivations. Beautifully done, and worth the wait.