The Fall of the Kings: This book vanished like a ship in the Bermuda triangle, and I think I know why

The Fall of the Kings by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman fantasy book reviewsThe Fall of the Kings by Ellen Kushner and Delia ShermanThe Fall of the Kings by Ellen Kushner & Delia Sherman

Ellen Kushner published Swordspoint in 1987. It gathered a swarm of fans who loved the prose, the magicless world with its glittering veneer and cloak-and-dagger intrigue, and the love story at its center. Readers clamored to know more of steadfast, enigmatic swordsman Richard St.Vier and his lover, the brilliant, neurotic noble Alec Campion.

In 2003, Ellen Kushner, writing with Delia Sherman, published The Fall of the Kings. Although it was nominated for a Mythopoeic Award and a Locus Award, The Fall of the Kings vanished from consciousness like a ship in the Bermuda triangle. I think I know why.

The Fall of the Kings takes place about fifty years after Swordspoint. Marcus makes an appearance, and we meet Alec’s niece Katherine, the protagonist of The Privilege of the Sword, although she is hard to recognize here. I’m glad I didn’t read The Fall of the Kings earlier because it would have soured me on this series. The Privilege of the Sword, published in 2006, was a more engaging and enjoyable book. My two-star rating here indicates the gap between my expectations of this book and my experience of it.

Three elements doomed this book for me.

The Fall of the Kings by Ellen Kushner and Delia ShermanOne is simply the number of books, or number of types of books, The Fall of the Kings wants to be. There is a political book about a planned coup. There is an academic quest with a bold scholar challenging the hidebound rules of an atrophying university that fears anything new. There is a romance novel with a handsome noble who loves and then betrays his professor lover. There is a story about magic returning to the land and demanding a price. There is a comic novel about student hijinks; there is a family saga. These elements are supposed to connect. They never quite did, and the plots, and the points of view, shift accordingly until we reach a completely unsatisfactory ending.

“Magic returning to the land” seems to drive the political plot, the romance plot and the academic plot, which led to the biggest flaw in the book for me. Suddenly we readers are asked to believe in British-Isles-based agrarian pagan magic, one that has never been discussed or hinted at before. The book counts on the reader’s knowledge of a magical system that never previously existed in-world. There is a lot of “retconning” here that didn’t work for me.

Sherman and Kushner are brilliant writers who focus on different things in their stories. In this work, the styles do not mesh, either at the level of story-telling or even prose style. This led to arrhythmic pacing and baffling changes in tone. The Fall of the Kings gives us dozens of characters, but only one, magister and scholar Basil St. Cloud, comes close to being as nuanced, sympathetic or compelling as either Alec Campion or Richard St. Vier.

There is lovely prose here and lush, ornate descriptions, and the Bantam edition does have one of those lush Thomas Canty covers; those are pluses, but this is a book for completists only. For the rest of us, I recommend some of the shorter works in this series, and I’ll let you know what I think of Swordspoint’s prequel novel, Tremontaine, which I ordered recently from Serial Box.

Published in 2003. This stunning follow-up to Ellen Kushner’s cult-classic novel, Swordspoint, is set in the same world of labyrinthine intrigue, where sharp swords and even sharper wits rule. Against a rich tapestry of artists and aristocrats, students, strumpets, and spies, a gentleman and a scholar will find themselves playing out an ancient drama destined to explode their society’s smug view of itself–and reveal that sometimes the best price of uncovering history is being forced to repeat it…. The Fall of the Kings. Generations ago the last king fell, taking with him the final truths about a race of wizards who ruled at his side. But the blood of the kings runs deep in the land and its people, waiting for the coming together of two unusual men, Theron Campion, a young nobleman of royal lineage, is heir to an ancient house and a modern scandal. Tormented by his twin duties to his family and his own bright spirit, he seeks solace in the University. There he meets Basil St. Cloud, a brilliant and charismatic teacher ruled by a passion for knowledge–and a passion for the ancient kings. Of course, everyone now knows that the wizards were charlatans and the kings their dupes and puppets. Only Basil ins not convinced–nor is he convinced that the city has seen its last king…

SHARE:  Facebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail  FOLLOW:  Facebooktwitterrsstumblr
If you plan to buy this book, you can support FanLit by clicking on the book cover above and buying it (and anything else) at Amazon. It costs you nothing extra, but Amazon pays us a small referral fee. Click any book cover or this link. We use this income to keep the site running. It pays for website hosting, postage for giveaways, and bookmarks and t-shirts. Thank you!

MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

View all posts by

3 comments

  1. Oh, what a disappointment! I hope Tremontaine works out better for you.

    • TREMONTAINE SEASON ONE has a very different tone; I think keeping each writer’s work discrete (each writer wrote one “episode” or chapter) was a better design.

      I put down THE FALL OF THE KINGS thinking that a book had finally made me *tired* of chocolate! But TREMONTAINE SEASON ONE has a character who trades in chocolate and comes from a different continent, and so it’s interesting again.

  2. Bummer. I know how much you love this world.

Review this book and/or Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *