Book Review: Tremontaine created by Ellen Kushner
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of Tremontaine
Publisher: Saga Press (May 2, 2017)
Length: 688 pages
Driven by the excellent experience I had with Bookburners earlier this year, I vowed to myself I would check out more serials from Serial Box. Pleasantly surprised by how well the structure of the serial novel worked for me, I wanted more—and thus my attention immediately fell upon Tremontaine Season One, the collection of all thirteen episodes released from Saga Press.
But while Bookburners came out of the gate running, throwing readers headfirst into the action right from the start, Tremontaine turned out to be a more measured affair, taking a handful of episodes to establish the setting and characters before easing into the meat of the story. Another way to look at it might be: if Bookburners is perfect for fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then the pacing and themes of Tremontaine would probably make it more appealing to fans of the action, romances, and politics of period dramas.
To provide a bit of context, Tremontaine is actually considered a prequel to Ellen Kushner’s highly acclaimed Riverside series, which I confess I have not read—though I know that the first book Swordpoint and the subsequent novels set in the same universe have been praised for its diversity and LGBT-friendly characters and world. Tremontaine continues in this tradition. In episode one, we are introduced to a vibrant setting, its atmosphere seemingly reminiscent of 17th or 18th century Europe. There appears to be two sides to this city, one characterized by luxuriously dressed nobles indulging themselves with decadent balls, masquerades, and of course, copious amounts of chocolate. The other side is a darker, seedier underworld where all manner of rogues and scoundrels gather to do their drinking, whoring, and gambling.
Among the nobles, one of the most prominent figures is Diane the Duchess of Tremontaine, a beautiful woman with a calculating eye and a sharp mind seeking to restore the glory of her House. While her husband is the one who technically holds ducal authority, in truth it is Diane who has all the power. Next we meet Ixkaab Balam, a young foreign woman who hails from an influential merchant family, newly arrived by boat to make her name in this strange land. Other members of the key cast also include Micah, an autistic farm girl whose uncanny talent for mathematics eventually leads her to a university where she meets Rafe, a passionate scholar who has dreams of one day opening his own school.
With all these disparate plotlines in play, things simmer for a while before exploding. I would say that, as much as I enjoyed the first handful of episodes, I did not consider myself thoroughly hooked until much later in the novel. Tremontaine is a serial that takes a slow burn approach, steadily building its foundations so that when the long anticipated action and passions do come, they are much more impactful. This does mean that it takes a good deal of patience to get to the exciting parts, but sticking it out will pay off in the end.
However, reading Tremontaine also made me feel skeptical of the multi-author serial format for the first time. I think having several authors on the same project works perfectly fine as long as their styles are alike enough to complement each other, as was the case with Bookburners where each episode written by their respective authors flowed easily from one to the next. In contrast, the transitions between episodes did not go as smoothly in Tremontaine. This was my first experience with all the authors, a lineup that includes Ellen Kushner, Malinda Lo, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, Patty Bryant, and Paul Witcover. They’re all very good writers, each with their own talents and individual flair. The problem with having so many different styles, however, is that the changes between episodes are very noticeable and distracting. Furthermore, episodes in Tremontaine do not follow the “mini-story” structure (the way many episodes in Bookburners did), with many of them having no rising action or resolution, and that together with the awkward transitions between authors made picking up at the beginning of each episode a little more difficult.
The characters were also not as strong as I would have liked. Among the main characters, my favorite was hands down Diane. She’s ambitious, cunning, and merciless, not to mention she’s sitting on a deep, dark secret that paints her in a very bad light. Still, I can’t help it; I seem to be drawn to these sly, scheming Machiavellian types—especially when they’re women. Compared to Diane though, no one else could really hold a candle to her. Kaab was interesting but I felt many of her sections felt like filler, especially when they could have gone to develop other characters like Micah, whom I loved but whose role felt underused. In particular I also felt a deep annoyance for Rafe, whose self-absorption and blind spots were done just a tad too much for me.
Still, I enjoyed my time with the first season of Tremontaine. Admittedly, it had a slow start, and if I had only a few episodes on hand to begin with, I might have given up early. Fortunately, this is where having a complete season really helps; I was able to keep going and reach a point where the story built up enough momentum to deliver on all its promises of swashbuckling action, passionate love affairs, political conflict and scandalous drama—plus enough descriptions of rich delicious chocolate to make your mouth water! Based on a world that is known for its vibrant diversity and queer-friendly themes, this prequel serial continues the trend in offering something new and different from the status quo. If you’re into “vanity fair” types of stories featuring adventure, romance, and intrigue, then I urge you to give Tremontaine a closer look.