(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.