Welcome to Tremontaine, the prequel to Ellen Kushner’s beloved Riverside series that began with Swordspoint!
A duchess’s beauty matched only by her cunning; her husband’s dangerous affair with a handsome scholar; a foreigner in a playground of swordplay and secrets; and a mathematical genius on the brink of revolution. Suddenly long-buried lies threaten to come to light and betrayal and treachery run rampant in this story of sparkling wit and political intrigue.
Written serially by six critically acclaimed authors, Tremontaine is a tale of intrigue, manners, treachery, and cleverness that will delight readers.
Last month, I reviewed Bookburners, the first Serial Box series to see a physical publication from Saga Press; now, I turn to their second, a very different prospect in a number of ways. Tremontaine, rather than being a world created for the purpose of a series, is a return to a world Ellen Kushner devised in the 1980s: the world of Riverside, of the novels Swordspoint, Privilege of the Sword, and The Fall of the Kings, of some seminal queer fantasy and foundations of mannerpunk. It’s got quite the legacy to live up to, therefore.
The plot of Tremontaine is set twenty years before Swordspoint, the first of the Riverside novels; as a prequel series, it occupies an interesting place in revealing the pasts of several characters we know from those books – although none of their protagonists, who are at most newborns at the time of this series. Unlike Bookburners, this isn’t episodic storytelling; the plot is broken up into discrete episodes, but they’re more like the episodes of The Night Manager than Supergirl, each one telling part of the whole and not really working in isolation. The writers of the episodes have varied ways of dealing with that; some are excellent at slipping in the relevant details to their episode, along the way, for those reading monthly, while others seem to treat the story as if Tremontaine will be read in one go, not including that information.
There are really three plots to Tremontaine, all intertwined. Duchess Diane Tremontaine is trying to recoup the fortune she lost on a failed mercantile venture (the ship went down); Ixkaab is in disgrace with her Kinwiinik Trader family after a catastrophic failure; Rafe is trying to found his own revolutionary school of thinking – and pass his university exams; and Micah… is mostly buffetted around in Rafe’s wake. For having such a complex set of plotlines, they all come together relatively quickly, as the principals meet or interact, mingle, and their interests coincide or run counter to each other. The shape of the plot as a whole is well-controlled, and Kushner’s editorial oversight of the project in keeping things moving is judiciously used, such that seeds are planted earlier for later revelations that one does not see coming but hindsight reveals were always there.
That’s not to say that the writing is necessarily even. While most of the episodes are excellent, and Kushner’s own ‘Arrival’ makes a perfect pilot for Tremontaine, there are a couple which don’t work quite so well. Joel Derfner’s ‘Shadowroot’ takes a long, convoluted journey to get to its destination, and telegraphs from the very start what takes a long time to come, without much really to justify that time. Some of the most complex chapters are the best though; in ‘The Dagger and the Sword’, Alaya Dawn Johnson uses a nonchronological approach to intersperse two timelines in a really brilliant way that reminds the reader of TV heists like Hustle, and that really spark along and advance both plot and character.
Unsurprisingly, Tremontaine has a lot of those hanging around; across thirteen episodes involving storylines revolving around three (or four?) principals, a certain number of background characters are going to be necessary. The principals themselves are well realised; from Kushner’s introductions of each in ‘Arrivals’, they’re clearly distinctive and distinct characters, each of whom has a different agenda and set of priorities, and the way those play out across the series is beautiful. From Diane’s increasingly desperate grip on control of the Tremontaine fortune, to Kaab’s torn loyalties between her romantic entanglement with the beautiful forger Tess; from Rafe’s burning need to create a new institution of learning to Micah’s pursuit of mathematical certainty, they’re each vivid and fascinating. Micah is also that rare thing in fiction, a well-portrayed autistic character, who is also a viewpoint character; the authors between them really did a lot of work to try to accurately portray life as someone neuroatypical amongst a neurotypical crowd who don’t know what makes you different.
The background characters are all just as vivid; Tremontaine is like a TV series that not only cast great actors in its main roles, but also used every character actor it could find in the background. They have distinctive voices, mannerisms, and approaches to the different characters; they have individual motivations which we either see from their point of view or through observation. If there’s an exception, it’s in House Tremontaine’s second swordsman, Reynald; while a little of his character is revealed, throughout all his appearances it remains essentially flat, and none of the authors really give us enough to get to grips with to care much about him.
Tremontaine is a real triumph of Serial Box’s and of Ellen Kushner’s; this expansion of the Riverside universe really shows us sides of it we hadn’t seen before and expands it beautifully. I’m looking forward to the second season omnibus.
Disclaimer: Ellen Kushner is a friend.
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