(Spoiler warning: The following review gives away a couple of events in the first quarter of the series in order to establish character conflicts. Beyond that, you won’t find any big plot revelations.)
Tremontaine, Serial Box Publishing’s prequel to Ellen Kushner’s Riverside series of novels, will certainly feel familiar to Kushner fans, yet it also serves as a playful introduction for readers new to this world. Appearing in weekly installments, it features the gleefully varied sexualities and gender expressions of Kushner’s universe, along with its cross-dressing swordswomen, its arrogant scholars, its political intrigue, and its focus on manners, where much more is going on beneath the surface than the reader first expects.
The world of Riverside exists in an alternate Europe, sometime between the Renaissance and early modern periods, with a bit of 1980s New York thrown in. Firearms have yet to be invented, so conflicts are settled at the point of a sword, usually wielded by a hired duelist. Though the genre is fantasy, there are no wizards and no magic, because these have long since been purged from society, along with the corrupt kings. The city and the country go unnamed, leaving us with neighborhoods: the lumpenproletarian Riverside and the aristocratic Hill, with the University existing in a social space somewhere between the two.
And so the novels featured characters from a variety of social classes, creating a rich bed of conflict and social disdain. They also brought a welcome diversity of sexualities and gender to fantasy (beginning with Swordspoint, way back in 1987). Now Tremontaine adds racial diversity to that mix in the form of traders from far-off Kinwiinik, who supply the aristocrats on the Hill with that all-important commodity, chocolate.
But here’s the cool thing: in this alternate universe, it’s the Kinwiinik (based loosely on various MesoAmerican peoples) who are the first to have understood astronomy and to have navigated the oceans. In a brilliant twist on history, this gives them the naming rights on this unnamed place, which they call Xanaamdaam, and its residents the Xanamwiinik. They view these people with skin the color of ant eggs as ignorant barbarians. They don’t mean to conquer these savages, however, but only to profit from their chocolate addiction. Meanwhile, the Xanamwiinik are fumbling to understand the world and how to navigate its waters.
And therein lies the heart of the tale, drawing the competing interests of the four main characters into conflict. Diane, Duchess Tremontaine, is threatened with bankruptcy and humiliation thanks to her countrymen’s navigational ignorance, having invested heavily in a ship that sank during an exploratory voyage. Rafe Fenton, a student who is working on exactly this problem, finds that his professors have no patience with his theories about the earth’s place in the universe. Micah Heslop is a farmer’s daughter who has come to the city to sell turnips, and is also a mathematical savant. Fate throws her together with Rafe, and the two team up to prove the latter’s theories (while earning a living at cards). If they are successful, Rafe will not only realize his ambition to open his own school, but his merchant father and other Xanamwiinik traders will be able to sail directly for the land of the Kinwiinik, thereby cutting out these middlemen (or middlewomen, since women are at least equal to men in Kinwiinik society).
Into this mix comes Ixkaab Balam, noble daughter of (and spy for) the foremost trading family among the Kinwiinik, seeking to redeem herself from a mysterious blunder she committed on her last mission. Now she’s supposed to keep her head down and stay away from love and unauthorized adventure, the apparent causes of her downfall. She’ll meet Rafe and Micah soon enough, but not before she’s smitten with a voluptuous redhead named Tess, whose honor she seeks to defend at sword’s point in the very first episode. So much for keeping away from love and adventure! Then she lets slip a bit of navigational knowledge to Rafe and Micah, bringing her apparent regard for them into conflict with her filial duty. The solution she concocts for this problem may be surprising for a professional spy, but it’s utterly characteristic of the tone of Kushner’s fictional world.
The plot twists further when Rafe decides that the best way to get around his recalcitrant professors is to begin an affair with one of the University’s governors, who also happens to be William, Duke Tremontaine, Diane’s husband. Lurking in the background of all this is a mysterious locket that appears to hold a dark secret about Diane’s past, and which adds a layer of menace to the tale.
By the midpoint of the series (seven episodes in), the plot has knit itself into a delightful tangle of cross-purposes. And given that this is, at heart, a comedy of manners, where else would these conflicting pursuits collide than at a ball? The assembly in question is the annual Tremontaine Swan Ball, a highlight of the season, but one which the Tremontaine staff have increasing difficulty carrying off under that house’s straitened circumstances. The result is hilarious, while also throwing stumbling blocks in all the characters’ paths toward their goals. I’m left eagerly anticipating the rest of the series, and grumbling over a planned one-week break. (Grrrr. But at least the writers promise some fun extras on the Serial Box website during that time.)
I must confess I had my reservations about a team of writers working on this series with Ellen Kushner. I shouldn’t have worried. The writing team (and let’s name them all, in order of appearance: Ellen Kushner, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Joel Derfner, Malinda Lo, Patty Bryant, and Racheline Maltese, with Paul Witcover still to come) and editor Delia Sherman have done an amazing job of keeping the voice consistent between episodes, while maintaining the tone and approach of the novels. The overall spirit is one of charming, frothy lightness, beneath which swirl dark undercurrents, including quite a bit of mayhem. (Swordsmen seemed to die with gleeful abandon in Swordspoint—it’s just part of the life.) It’s a bit like the Duchess’s gowns: lacy, silky confections, but you know they must conceal at least a few daggers, and maybe not just metaphorical ones.
A good example of this charming quality is the character of Micah. She has all the naiveté you might expect from a farmer’s daughter, for whom the city is an unfamiliar place. This isn’t played for stereotype but is rendered sympathetically. “What’s a ball?” she asks at one point. And her first encounter with tomato pie (which we would call pizza) is truly endearing. To protect her from harassment in the city, her uncle has her bob her hair and dress as a boy. He has another good reason to protect her: She suffers from debilitating social anxiety (which the writers have described as being similar to what we would call Asperger’s). At one point we find her crouched in a doorway as hordes of university students stream past her. Maybe it’s because I’ve often wanted to do the same thing at crowded parties (and crowded conferences!) that I relate to her so well. Yet this sweet, innocent character holds the knowledge and aptitude to bring down the Kinwiinik trading empire.
With a serial like this, there’s probably no way to focus on a single character’s point of view for an entire episode. And so each chapter features multiple viewpoints, which could get confusing with too much head-jumping. But here again the writers have handled this challenge well, moving between the different points of view gracefully, and letting each build on the tensions already established by the others. The plot moves along with that graceful, unhurried pace familiar from the novels, until, boom, it rears up and hits you between the eyes at unpredictable moments.
Along with the great writing, there are the great covers by Kathleen Jennings. Oh, and did I mention audio versions? These are automatically included with the purchase of each episode. I’m no expert on audio books (and I haven’t listened to all of the Tremontaine recordings), but I think these voice actors do a superb job. The Duchess’s voice is described as low and melodious, and Katherine Kellgren captures those qualities perfectly, along with Diane’s sharp wit. And Sarah Mollo-Christensen is especially good as Rafe, making that character more likable than he seems in print, while also bouncing well between Kaab and Micah.
Tremontaine is a stunning success so far, and I can’t wait for the second half of the series.
You can get Tremontaine through Amazon and other ebook retailers, or directly from SerialBox.com, where you’ll also find behind-the-scenes articles and other extras.
OvertheEffingRainbow.co.uk posts insightful read-along reviews every week from a reader new to the Riverside universe (and as she’ll warn you, they contain spoilers).
AudioBookaneers.com has listen-along reviews of the audio versions (also with spoilers).