Ellen Kushner
& Delia Sherman,
The Fall of the Kings
(Bantam Spectra, 2002)

In her first novel, Swordspoint, Ellen Kushner presented a fantasy context sans the supernatural: no witches, no warlocks, no dark spirits, no dire prophecies, no puffs of smoke nor fierce apparitions. In The Fall of the Kings, Kushner and her collaborator, Delia Sherman, have added that dimension to the context, but still avoid the usual devices of heroic fantasy; the "magic" is a matter of the workings of myth on the minds of men, making those places within each of us that respond to those motifs and stories that resonate in our deepest levels of engagement the real substance of the story.

Basil St. Cloud is a scholar, a doctor of history at the university; his passion is Truth, his area of study "ancient" history, the era of the Kings, the first of whom came from the North, a land of myth and magic, to marry the Queen of the South, where order and reason prevail, and join the two kingdoms.

The Kings, who were all more or less mad, were accompanied by their wizards, who were their chief ministers and lovers, and who governed the Kings so that the Kings could govern the realm. The nobles of the South, their power threatened, eventually overthrew the wizards, with foreseeable results: the Kings grew less and less rational, until the last of them was assassinated by a duke of Tremontaine.

Theron Campion is a scion of Tremontaine, descended also from the Kings, and a bona fide member of his class: wealthy, idle, he is notorious for his excesses, not the least of which is the number and variety of his lovers, of whom he has decided that St. Cloud will be the next. Their affair, as seems to be the rule among Kushner's protagonists, is a highly charged, tempestuous, often cruel relationship, qualities which are only emphasized as St. Cloud's researches into the history of the Kings and their wizards bring the myth and its magic more and more to the forefront of the story and he and Theron begin to take on their roles as priest and sacrifice. (In light of the increasing tendency to attempt the use of elements of modern paganism in contemporary fantasy -- usually with the result of trivializing the former with no appreciable gain to the latter -- that Kushner and Sherman have cut to the heart of the matter, not in their use of a central myth in itself, but in the color and structure they assign it and the depth that it brings to their story, only sets a new standard for the examination of religion and its conflicts in the genre.)

Political intrigue is one of the motivators of the narrative thread, in the form of the sly dealings of Lord Arlen, high in the Council of Lords, whose ambitions are vast and whose agent, Nicholas, Lord Galing, never knows completely what is expected or desired. The immediate crisis for the rulers is sparked by famine and unrest in the North and a direct petition from a Northerner to restore the Kings: it was the Kings who were bound to the land, who kept it tame and productive with their sacrifices, and now the land has forsaken the people. The academic buffoonery of Roger Crabbe, director of history and purveyor of the regurgitated "wisdom" of his predecessors (often mistaken and always politically expedient), contrasted with the revolutionary earnestness of the young scholars who form St. Cloud's coterie, provide the main surface conflict for St. Cloud himself. This debate moves out of academia, however, when St. Cloud's researches threaten to uncover the truth about the wizards -- wizardry is now treason. As St. Cloud's findings are about to be made public, it is Arlen and Galing and their maneuvers that encompass the resolution.

There are numerous accolades included in the front of this book, calling up references to a diversity of authors, genres and styles; they are all correct, as far as they go (although they really only scratch the surface). One is left with the basic question: "What is this book about?" The Fall of the Kings is open to too many answers. Ultimately, it is about itself, about its richness and complexity, its passages of uncomfortable intensity and dream-laden mythic potency, its juxtapositions of substance and triviality, and about the resolution of where our arbitrary but rational reality meets the coherent and unreasonable legacy of the past. The reality in this case is that this is one of those very rare novels, especially in the fantasy genre, that is not only substantial, but unique.

Tour de force? Most certainly.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 29 May 2004

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