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10:05 pm: Review of "The Fall of the Kings," by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman (minor spoilers)
This was a book that left a disjointed impression on me, so it will be disjointedly rambled about.

-The book is supposedly a sequel to Swordspoint, though it’s set 60 years afterward and the only surviving character from that book plays a minor role. I found it easier to think of it as in a different world entirely, actually. For one thing, Swordspoint is generally called “a fantasy of manners,” and The Fall of the Kings is an “academic fantasy” in tone. For another, the world of Swordspoint has no magic. The Fall of the Kings has quite a bit.

-The magic was redeemed by lyrical description. I like lyrical descriptions at least as much as academic debates, when they don’t repeat tired old clichés like “green as emeralds.” However, I’m glad they were there, because the general concept here is nothing new: the Horned King, orgies in the woods, a suppressed pagan religion focused on the Horned King and orgies in the woods. I’ve swallowed too many generic Celtic fantasies and neopagan sermonizing to find it stunning, and since I was one of those people who considered The Mists of Avalon preachy and distinctly un-stunning, I don’t have any particular book-inspired fondness for it.

-Theron (one of the two main characters) is wonderful. He’s an example of the idea that it’s flaws which make a character human and sympathetic, not enduring physical perfection touched only with the saintliest of heroic saintliness. He’s sulky, naïve, has bad judgment of character, tends to freeze in situations where he really should take a more active role, thinks with his dick too much, takes foolish risks, and claims that he doesn’t like being a “lord,” all the while taking certain political privileges for granted. But he’s not stupid, and he’s stuck in a really horrible situation, and I felt sorry and relieved for him simultaneously at the end of the book.

-Basil St. Cloud, the second main character, has a longer way to go in earning my sympathy. He’s a scholar, and I can sympathize with his scholarly enthusiasm. But he also gets mixed up with the magic in the book. While other characters do this, their connections to the magic are explained quite clearly. Basil seems to have stumbled into it entirely by accident. He’s not a deus ex machina, but it seems that he really, really needed to be in one specific place for the book to work, and the authors put him into that place without showing where he came from.

-I had trouble keeping the more minor characters straight. Sometimes I wondered if the authors wanted me to. For example, Basil has three close friends, whose names and professions we learn in detail at the start of the book, but only one of them has more than two scenes with him. I found that odd, particularly as some of the situations Basil enters would have become easier with their help. There’s also a crowd of Basil’s students, two of whom become distinct about halfway through the book, one of whom is distinct but in a weird way (I never understood why he believed the things he did), and the other two of whom remained names and quirks for me. Add them to the horde of Theron’s family, some of whom are simply There; the pagan worshippers, who are mostly names and interchangeable dialogue; and a few conveniently placed characters who pop up near the end of the book just in time to help Theron, and I grew increasingly skeptical. I know the authors can do a good job with characterization, since Theron proves it. I think the problem was less one of poor writing and more one of poor plotting. It seemed as though characters could have been combined or lost from the plot, and nothing would have suffered.

-The plot…mmm-hmmm. As I mentioned, there are some elements of it that I found generic. They weren’t enough to make me hate the book, but I really wish the unusual setting, which is a university town with echoes of the Enlightenment (academic debates! Woo-hoo! says the English major), and the sharply defined character of Theron, could have had a story more separated from the norm. This is a problem I’ve seen before; I’ve read several fantasies now, such as Jacqueline Carey’s, that have wonderful settings and characters but cannot seem to get away from rather generic fantasy plotlines. I don’t know why. Perhaps “secret heir,” “put the monarch on the throne,” and “find the magical object” really do appeal to so many people that it’s perfectly excusable. I just want something else.

-And oh, yeah, the ending. I liked some aspects of it because it tends to fit with the way that I view the world, and it intensifies academic courage in some of the characters. But the vehicle was disappointing, coming as it does through the actions of a person who, based on his previous characterization, I would never have guessed would do what he did. Not enough of a flaw to make me hate the book, just enough to make me question it—like the magic, really, and the plot, and Basil.

Currently in the middle of Diana Wynne Jones’s Dalemark Quartet; “meh” on the first book, but I’m enjoying the second one much better. I’ll post a review when I’m done with all four.

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