Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
The Fall of the Kings
Ellen Kushner & Delia Sherman
Bantam/Spectra, 476 pages

Thomas Canty
The Fall of the Kings
Ellen Kushner
Two of Ellen Kushner's novels include Swordspoint and Thomas the Rhymer, which won both a World Fantasy Award and a Mythopoeic Award for best novel of 1990.

ISFDB Bibliography

Delia Sherman
If any of Delia Sherman's work should be remembered, it should be The Porcelain Dove, a novel of intoxicating beauty. She has also contributed short fiction to such anthologies as Bending the Landscape and Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Through A Brazen Mirror
SF Site Review: The Essential Bordertown: A Traveller's Guide to the Edge of Faerie
SF Site Review: The Horns of Elfland

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

Blending elements of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic folklore within a highly mannered and urban, if quasi-medieval, setting that at times evidences contemporary undertones, authors Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman return to the world of Kushner's debut novel, Swordspoint. Five hundred years earlier, a united kingdom was forged by the marriage of King Alcuin and Queen Diane, a marriage of convenience between the North and the South continued by successive kings. They ruled their joint realm with the counsel and occult support of wizards and pagan beliefs inherited from the North, where kings were viewed as an extension of the Land. Identified with what may have been more than mere ritual sacrifice, fertility and allegorical hunts of stags in the forest, the monarchs gained an increasing reputation for despotism and madness, abetted by their cabal of wizards and the threat of sorcery, until ultimately both were overthrown by members of the Southern nobility. Since then, in the two hundred years that have passed, their rule and the practice of magic has been outlawed, consigned to universal derision and censure, an example held up of past excess and bad governance. And through later scholarship, the truth behind their infamous reign has also been freed of the myths and fables associated with the wizards, their magic having been shown to be nothing more than trickery and sleight-of-hand. What legacy remains serves now only as a cautionary tale of tyranny and superstition, a subject for history, and even then but of a small number of scholars. Yet some memories of their reign still linger in song and story, as well as can be viewed in the observance of ancient holidays converted to more modern custom. And, on occasion, rumors filter down from of the North of strange woodland gatherings.

Basil St. Cloud, Doctor of History and candidate for the Horn Chair, is the University's most vocal advocate for the study of the ancient kings, believing their legacy has in part become clouded by the passage of time and the absence of reliable texts following The Fall of the Kings. Those historians that have written of the period have concentrated upon the events surrounding the kings' overthrow, and utilized second if not third-hand accounts of the last monarchs and their progressive degeneracy into madness. Little is known of the earliest kings, and much that has been written has come at the benefit of hindsight, as well as from within the context of a society ruled by the very nobility that overthrew the monarchy. In searching through old archives, St. Cloud has come to suspect that not all the kings were tyrants, nor the wizards that supported them simply charlatans whose reputation for sorcery was used as mere smoke screen to prop up support for the king. He has begun to conclude that there may be more to their story than long-held tenants of current scholarship, or the probable biases and extrapolation of historians who wrote long after events had occurred. Though he continues to dismiss the notion of magic associated with the wizards' influence, he nonetheless perceives that they may have possessed some secret knowledge explainable through empirical methods. And little question in his mind that the early kings were benign, and that their rule initially benefited the kingdom. Potentially dangerous beliefs, even for an academic, but he hopes to prove his theories through additional research and the discovery of long forgotten primary sources.

Pursuit of this research will become interrupted, and mysteriously enlivened, by his unlooked for relationship with a young noble, Lord Theron Campion, a descendent of the duke that brought down the last king. An intellectual dilettante, with a roguish reputation and a long history of amorous affairs, the likelihood of genuine love developing between the two men -- a bookish don and a spoiled nobleman -- seems improbable at first. But they become inexorably drawn to each other, experiencing a passion that goes beyond the physical, and begins to intrude upon their dreams. Childhood nightmares of an antlered face peering from a pool, of a mysterious man in bearskins beckoning to him, begin to torment Theron's sleep, recalling recent events disturbing in their similarity. St. Cloud starts to experience sensations and a knowledge that appears to transcend his physical surroundings. While both men will initially deny their experiences, failing to recognize their mutual association, St. Cloud will come to recognize that their love and attraction is based upon more than mere passion and emotional commitment, and that their fates are ultimately tied to something his research has awoken.

With its setting of urban streets and university precincts, a milieu of noble parlors, ghetto squalor and collegial ratskellers, as well as the political intrigue of scholarship and government, the authors admirably transfer their more conventional fantasy motifs to an environment offering a possibility for novelty, of which they take full advantage. The more mystical elements loosely borrowed from folklore are left in part shadowy, which, while perhaps of annoyance to some readers, retains its sense of mystery, as well as offers the possibility for expansion in further novels, an option left open at the book's conclusion. This backdrop also presents the opportunity for the authors to draw more contemporary observations concerning society, art, history, and scholarship disguised within the conventional trappings of fantasy, with some rather pointed barbs directed at the self-serving pursuits and arguments of acanemia, the manner in which history is often fabricated, or the at times dual character of feminism. Sexual and romantic stereotypes are confronted through a prominent use of gay relationships, and clandestine political organizations, with their potential for manipulation (a timely inclusion?) by governments, are parodied. While many of these thematic statements are understated, or only briefly touched upon or pedestrian in approach, they nonetheless contribute an undercurrent of intention often absent in similar vehicles.

The greatest strengths of The Fall of the Kings reside in its rather stylish approach, as well as its rich imagery and mythical elements. The cast of characters is strong and multi-faceted, the use of multiple perspective deftly handled, and, except in the case of Roger Crabbe, potential "villains" in the story are treated as being more than one-dimensional. The only real stumble comes with the late introduction of Jessica, whose resolution of several plot elements seems a trifle glib in execution, and whose depiction as colorful freebooter smacks of recent and popular typecasting, or, looking back to an earlier generation, maybe Maureen O'Hara on the Spanish Main. Additionally, over time, the redundant and largely superfluous sexual interludes between Theron and St. Cloud become tiring, especially when inserted every chapter or two.

Nonetheless, I expect many will enjoy this novel, finding it a bit of fresh air amongst more conventional or heroic fare, in some ways blending the best of contemporary and traditional fantasy. And the imaginary world the authors have created, as well as the folklore-based mythos that informs it, is engaging, and offers plenty of rich potential for further exploration. In sum, an intriguing and entertaining masque, worthy of further mining and development. Hopefully we will see more of this world in future novels from the authors.

Copyright © 2003 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide