Ellen Kushner et al., Tremontaine

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When one finds oneself stalling with thirty pages left in a book, there may be two causes. First is that you love it so much you don’t want to finish it; second is that it hasn’t enthralled you and the length of your subway ride has been the only thing impelling you to finish. Unfortunately, I believe that in the case of Tremontaine, it’s the second.

Tremontaine is one of serialbox’s efforts – this first “season” is composed, like a TV show, of episodes written by several authors. It’s an interesting way of bringing back the serial novel, but I have to say that even in the case of Bookburners, whose first season I loved, I wait for the compilation. The serial format means that each author has their own take on the characters, to some extent, and also that I did it wrong in reading it in two big gulps. Tremontaine is also a prequel to the classic Swordspoint, but you don’t have to have read Swordspoint to read Tremontaine (I’ve read Swordspoint but recall very little of it).

Prologue and technicalities being past, Tremontaine is the story of Diane, Duchess of Tremontaine; William, the Duke; Ixkaab, a trader from an Aztec-flavored empire; Micah, a farmgirl with an uncanny knack for numbers; and Rafe, a scholar.  The length and the serial format give plenty of opportunity for each character’s desires, dreams, and plots to be explored thoroughly; I have no complaints there.

If you’d like to stop reading this review now, the upshot is “I enjoyed this and think it’s fairly well executed, but it left me almost entirely cold.”

The thing that sinks it, for me, is the plot itself. If I’m promised a master plotter, I want to be confused and unable to follow their plots. Diane, we’re told by the back cover and by the text, is a master of subtlety, but she manages to have her master plot foiled, in large part, by a rag-tag crew of misfits, who don’t have much trouble with it at all. In all of the writers’ hands, Diane is very good at the social aspect of manipulation, but her actual plotting skills were weak, and I don’t want to open any Doylist vs. Watsonian debates, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s because the writers didn’t have anything up their sleeves.

Further, what I do remember about Swordspoint is that it had a sort of hard-edged glitter to it and a glamour that I felt were missing from the world of Tremontaine. Buckles should have been swashed, daggers hidden in cloaks, rapiers out in plain view. And there were some passages with the glamour of the swordsman, but they were few and far between.

However, there are at least several good points: Ixkaab’s people are suitably interesting, when it comes to difference between their culture and the people of Tremontaine (though I thought she had much too little difficulty fitting in and figuring out how Tremontaine worked). It’s absorbing enough; I did want to find out what happened next, mostly. Science – actual science – and math, and scholarship are important to the plot – despite what I said about swashbuckling, it is a breath of fresh air to see a fantasy that doesn’t depend entirely on war and warriors.

The characters are all fairly interesting; if we’re enumerating problems, one of them has to be was that, while I didn’t dislike anyone who was supposed to be sympathetic, I wasn’t strongly attracted to them either. Most of the characterization was fairly stable across authors, but I felt that Diane especially varied to an unpleasant extent.

In sum, Tremontaine is pleasant enough to spend time with, but I wouldn’t suggest that you rush it to the top of your to-read list. It’s better than the common run of fantasy, with much more to distinguish it (competent prose across the board, for one) than most new releases, but it simply wasn’t all that compelling.

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