Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Review: The Fall of the Kings by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman (audio edition)

You’d better believe I did the happy dance when Ellen Kushner announced that an audio edition of THE FALL OF THE KINGS, her collaboration with Delia Sherman, was in production. I adored her renditions of SWORDSPOINT and THE PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD (both of which rank among my favourite books as well as my favourite audios), and could not wait to listen to the chronological third book in the series. I keep a special place in my heart for this sprawling tale of an academic and an aristocrat who unwittingly enact an ancient ritual that looks set to restore magic to their land, so I bought it for myself as a slightly late birthday present and dove straight in.

The book took me far longer than intended, thanks to a decided lack of listening time in September and October, but this in no way affected my enjoyment. THE FALL OF THE KINGS is every bit as wonderful an audio as SWORDSPOINT and THE PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD. Kushner’s narration is stellar, and the dramatized scenes (which include a performance by Sherman in her audio debut), are a wonderful accent. I spent an ungodly amount of time wriggling in my seat and/or dancing as I listened, simply because I was so glad to experience the book this way.

Which isn’t to say it’s an entirely happy book. For all its enjoyable qualities, it’s quite dark in places--by which I may mean it’s quite dark overall. I have a terrible sense for what is or isn’t dark, so I suspect other readers may consider this book rather more wretched than I myself did.

Which is to say: there’s madness and cruelty and other fun stuff like that. Be forewarned.

This time (my third pass through the book in any format), I thrilled to all the old joys: Basil’s campaign for primary sources; the students’ many discussions about the nature of history and scholarship; the pervading focus on academia and learning; the glittering, aristocratic world to which Theron feels at odds. Whenever I paused to consider the book, though, I found myself most fascinated with the way Kushner and Sherman handle the magic.

THE FALL OF THE KINGS is a Return of Magic book. The inhabitants of the unnamed City and the country it governs over have had no truck with magic for at least two hundred years. Many believe it’s no more than a myth or a metaphor, and even those who give it some credence agree it’s long gone from the world.

That changes when Basil, the book’s scholarly protagonist, comes across the long-lost Book of the King’s Wizard. The spells Basil performs exert a desperate control over both Basil himself and Theron, the book’s aristocratic protagonist (and Basil’s lover). Kushner and Sherman’s magic reads (or listens) like a live snake in the hand; an unruly force whose goals are not always those of the person who wields it. Kushner’s dramatic narration and the musical score that accompanies each spell underscore this point and lend the magic an even more frantic, otherworldly feel. It's an ethereal force, and not something one can necessarily understand in its entirity.

This is my favourite sort of magic: rich, strange, and difficult to fully wrap one’s mind around. I reveled in it.

Hell, I revelled in the whole thing. After nearly a month and a half of interrupted listening, I finally made time to push through the last couple of hours in a single go. It was totally worth it.

If you enjoyed THE FALL OF THE KINGS in print, you surely want to get the audio. Hell, even if you’re totally new to this world, the audio (and, of course, the print edition) are well worth your time. Just be prepared for some spoilers, both overt and implied, for SWORDSPOINT and THE PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD.


While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned, especially with an audio title like this one. If you're in search of a way to listen to (or read) THE FALL OF THE KINGS, you can try:

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through one of the links above.


  1. "Campaign for primary sources" -- this makes me happy and I want it. I'll read the books in order because that is how I roll, so hopefully the other books also have campaigns for primary sources also?

    How did the dramatized scenes work? I didn't even know that was something audio books did! Do different actors just read the dialogue in those scenes, or are they like proper mini-radio plays?

    1. Alas, this is the only book set firmly in academia, so the others make no mention of primary sources. There's some jaw about the inequalities academic instutitions promote, though, and plenty of other great stuff that has nothing to do with higher learning.

      The dramatized scenes are quite a bit like radio plays, complete with sound effects and music written specifically for the production. There's a fair amount of narration mixed in with the voice actors, too.

  2. One day I will either read or listen to this..

    1. I highly recommend the entire series on audio.

    2. Well, I have this one. I just have to get the others now!

  3. I keep thinking I've read all three books, but I'm not sure if I have. At least two I have...but which two, I can no longer remember! It's so annoying! The only thing is to go back and reread them all - no hard thing at all! lol Your review is excellent and makes me wish I didn't have 5 things to read already before Christmas!

    I have missed you, Memory!! So good to have you back. And with food, too. that sausage latke recipe looks good......

    1. The whole series rereads beautifully. You're in for such a good time!

      There will be a great deal of food here in the future. I've already scheduled some more recipes. :)