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fall of the kings.jpgI knew that there had been two other books in the Riverside series published since Swordspoint, but I incorrectly assumed that the next published book, The Fall of the Kings, must be the next in the series. Turns out that the third published book, The Privilege of the Sword, is actually chronologically next in the series. Alas, it features the one character from The Fall of the Kings that I actually liked, even though she only makes a very late, deus ex machina kind of entry into the story. Worse, The Fall of the Kings is not a complete story in itself and seems to be the first half of a duology. I say "alas" and "worse" because I disliked The Fall of the Kings enough that, following my disappointment with a second reading of Swordspoint, I've lost interest in reading any more of the series. I might have been better off reading The Privilege of the Sword instead, but who knows? Maybe a full novel about the mysterious Jessica Campion wouldn't have worked for me either.

Anyway, The Fall of the Kings was co-written by Ellen Kushner's wife, Delia Sherman. I remarked in my review of Swordspoint that it still stands out as unusual in the fantasy genre for lacking magic and for being set in an imaginary world that's completely separate from our own, not a fairyland or otherworld that we can access through a portal, as in much traditional fantasy. The latter continues to be true in this novel, but this time there's a vastly richer history developed for this imaginary world, and the richer history includes magic. Somewhere on the internet I ran into a review describing the Riverside books as "alternate universe historical fiction." That's pretty close to it. It's an alternate universe in which things developed very much like they did in our universe's Europe up through the Renaissance, in terms of political organization and technology, but with almost none of the specifics the same, and of course now with real magic too.

If magic was non-existent in Swordspoint, it's contested here. Specifically, it's contested academically. This is very much a university novel, and one focus is an academic debate within the History department over whether references to wizards and magic in the historical past were metaphorical or real. Everybody agrees that a kingdom was formed when kings from the north came south with their wizards and formed a union via marriage with a queen in the south. This kingdom lasted for a few centuries before the last king was murdered by a cabal of southern nobles, leaving a noble-run polity without a king as discovered in Swordspoint. Historians are clear that every one of the ruling kings in the past had a wizard, but what they disagree about is whether the wizard actually practiced magic or whether they were frauds manipulating the credulous in order to gain power.

One of our protagonists, Basil St Cloud, is a revolutionary new historian who believes that the textual evidence that magic existed should be taken at face value and not dismissed as metaphorical nonsense. He delves into paraliterary sources such as ballads and personnel lists looking for more proof of his theory, while his rival, Crabbe, accepts the received academic wisdom of the day. If this sounds a little like the debate between scholasticism and empiricism in the Renaissance, it should, and that's part of the problem I had with the book. Why reinvent these debates in an alternate history? Well, I guess it's because they really want it to be about magic, and so they overlay another layer of secret history similar to The Golden Bough or The White Goddess regarding a past religion of a sacred king who is sacrificed to fertilize the land, which history has been masked, as Frazier and Graves claimed, by later religions who for political purposes appropriated parts of it while rejecting other parts.

What's weird about this to me is that Frazier and Graves were specifically arguing that there was an old matriarchal pagan religion that was overthrown by the patriarchal monotheistic religions such as Christianity, but at least in this first book, that dimension is missing. Here we get into the other thing I disliked about the book (and about Swordspoint on second reading too), but I have to tread carefully here, because I'm highly aware this may be my own bias speaking. Which is to say, the other focus of the story is the sexual relationship between St Cloud and the noble descendant of not only Alec from Swordspoint but of the Duke who killed the last king. This is Theron Campion, who is heir to the Duke of Tremontaine and an itinerant student at the University. Campion is actually bisexual (as were Alec and St Vier in Swordspoint) and a great beauty much lusted after by many characters in the novel. He has a passionate relationship with St Cloud, which reaches derangement of the senses levels. This is not a pornographic work, but there's a lot of description of male beauty, studly strutting and rutting, swelling members, tormented lust, and sweaty sheets. A lot. I can appreciate male beauty with the best of them, but I got really tired of the sexual obsessiveness. If you're into hot gay sex, your mileage may vary.

I do think it's daring and different to make a gay relationship the center of story like this, but I'm not sure that it makes sense, unless I'm completely misunderstanding the allusions to Frazier and Graves. Why make a gay relationship the center of a fertility cult? Possibly this is part of a subversive move that will be made clear in the next book, and we'll find that the mystical Land is the female principle that can only be fertilized by sex between two men, I don't know. That could actually end up being an interesting idea, but what I found in this part of the story seemed repetitive and non-sensical. I'm tempted to throw in a joke about ineluctable masculinity, just in case I turn out to be completely wrong-headed in my interpretation.

Well, as with Swordspoint, I was continually distracted by the ways in which this world seemed like a thinly disguised version of our own history transposed for some reason into this Neverneverland, from the conflict between Medieval scholasticism and Enlightenment empiricism, the allusions to Frazier and Graves, and the twentieth century academic bohemian experience reimagined as nobles slumming it in crime-ridden but gentrifying lower class taverns. (Way too many scenes of students arguing in taverns, too.) The mix certainly didn't work for me, even though some of the elements are of interest. It was slightly maddening, because I felt I should like it, but it just irritated the hell out of me instead. Late in the book, Theron's bastard lesbian pirate sister enters the story and enlivens the proceedings immeasurably by being smarter and more competent than everyone else in the room, which makes me curious about The Privilege of the Sword, which is apparently all about her, but after not enjoying either of these other Riverside novels, I'm not willing to give a third a try without strong evidence that it's something I actually would enjoy.

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