Welcome to Tremontaine, the prequel to Ellen Kushner’s beloved Riverside series that began with Swordspoint! A Duchess whose beauty is matched only by her cunning; her husband’s dangerous affair with a handsome scholar; a foreigner in a playground of swordplay and secrets; and a mathematical genius on the brink of revolution—when long-buried lies threaten to come to light, betrayal and treachery know no bounds with stakes this high. Mind your manners and enjoy the chocolate in a dance of sparkling wit and political intrigue.
Tremontaine is an episodic serial presented by Serial Box Publishing. This collected omnibus edition gathers all 16 episodes from Season 1.
Book – Tremontaine (Season One)
Star rating - ★★★★☆
No. of Pages – 462
Cover – quirky and clever!
POV – 3rd person, multi character, often omni-present
Would I read it again – Yes!
Genre – LGBT, Fantasy, Serial, Historical, Coming-of-Age, Queer
Content Warning – mild violence, sexual situations, adultery/cheating, prostitution
Orientations – MM, MF, FF
** COPY RECEIVED THROUGH NETGALLEY **
This is my second Serial Box production and I'll admit that I loved the beginning of the other series 'ReMade' but had trouble with the fact that so many various authors wrote parts that made up the whole. Some authors voices didn't work, for me, but that isn't a problem I had with this series. For once, though each author's voice is very talented, I could easily have read this from start to finish without knowing there was more than one author. They all tried to keep the same “voice” and atmosphere to their shorts that made it possible to read each one as a new chapter in a whole cohesive story. Characterisation, setting, mood, and the attention to detail never slipped.
Episode 1: Arrivals, by Ellen Kushner
This was a great first start to the series. I loved Kushner's writing style and the clever way that such a complex world – a mix of historical and fantasy – was built and portrayed. For a story advertised as just 49 pages, there is a lot to take in, here.
We're introduced to a lot of characters, but the most important are those that give their POV: Duchess Diane Tremontaine, trader Ixkaab Balam, and the young farm girl disguised as a boy Micah.
Diane is traversing the dangerous political waters of women married to men in the Council of Lords, while navigating successfully through the quagmire of social scandal, such as her friend Lady Galing's husband's open affair with Lord Asper. Both of whom (Lady Galing and Lord Asper) appear to have a major hand in what might transpire in the future. They're both intriguing side characters and both have the possibility of improving Diane's unfortunate family issue of debt.
Ixkaab is a trader, sent away from one part of her family (mother/father) to another branch (aunt/uncle) because of something she did that she shouldn't have. What that is, we don't know yet, but her journey is interesting, if not my favourite. She also had the fewest POV scenes, which may indicate her story isn't as important as the others, or that all of her important scenes will come in later issues.
Micah, for me, is my favourite. While I love Diane's sassiness and quick wit, Micah is wholly innocent, naÏve and completely unprepared for the journey she goes on. I fully expected her to be revealed for the girl she is, or taken advantage of, every time she met a new character, so I was pleased to find this didn't happen. In fact, the exuberant and passionately enthusiastic Rafe takes her under his wing. And I can't wait to find out how that pans out.
Overall, I loved how it was all woven together and I suspect that the three individual stories will wind together later. I loved the openly acknowledged gay relationships and how that was handled, as well as the undercurrent of there being something we're not being told. I did have an issue with some of the text being a different font (always in Ixkaab's POV) and her name being interchangable from Ixkaab to Kaab, with increasing inconsistency.
I'm intrigued to keep reading.
“She had never seen anyone whose face lit up as much as his. His eyes were like stars, like the first stars of evening that appeared while the low sky was still blue around the edges. Micah always wished on the first star.”
Episode 2: The North Side of the Sun, by Alaya Dawn Johnson
This was an interesting follow up to episode 1. Told in a similar style, thankfully, so I had no trouble continuing on from one to the other, and all the characters were likeable and recognisable.
I'll admit, I'm not a fan of bracketed information being slipped into the narrative, so that bothered me a little, especially when it was mostly unnecessary.
This episode focused more on Rafe and his experiences, right from the start. Though it included Ixkaab's POV, and shared the plot equally between Ixkaab and Rafe, there was a lot more of Rafe than the previous episode, which I loved, nothing of Diane on page, though she is mentioned more than once, which was a shame, and lots of Micah through both POV's, which was awesome. I found myself just as much in love with Rafe and Micah as before, though I do have to admit that I was totally shipping Rafe and Duke Tremontaine, despite the Duke being married! I found the Duke to come across as much younger than he read in the previous episode, but since no age has been determined and he admitted to a previous gay affair in episode 1, I'm open minded about his age and that he might just be a naturally charming and youthful personality. I'd love to see more of him, especially with Rafe.
I also really came to love Joshua, though he was barely ever on page. The way he's explored through Micah and Rafe is enough to make me want to see more of him, this long-suffering best friend and sometimes-lover of Rafe.
The inclusion of a mysterious spy intrigued me and I'm eager to find out more about that.
Overall, everything that happened in episode 1 is continued on in this episode and built upon. Nothing is set aside or ignored. It's all woven together so nicely that I can't wait to read the next episode.
“Micah wrinked her nose. “Cousin Daniel tried to kiss me once. I hit him on the head with a turnip and he never tried again.”
Kaab laughed until she had to wipe her eyes. “I think that was very wise,” she said.”
Episode 3: Heavenly Bodies, by Joel Derfner
Eeek! The Duke and Rafe!!! I can't say enough about it.
I loved the style of writing, again, but slightly more than before. There was something about it that felt somehow sharper, to the point, and increased the effectiveness of the already brilliant characterisation.
The plot focused almost solely on Ixkaab and Rafe, while also featuring Micah and Diane in their observations and experiences.
I don't think I need to say anything about how I felt about William (the Duke) and Rafe finally getting together for a little chocolate and tango. Just like Joshua, I could see the tide turning with the Duke, that Rafe was far too interested for his own good, that he broke his cardinal rule about second helpings, and again his new rule of not succumbing to traitors. I absolutely loved everything about both of them and their interactions. The chemistry was incredible.
There was a minor switch of font for about 3 lines, but nothing too excessive and it only happened once.
I loved Joshua in full tilt, getting to see him interacting with Rafe and seeing how their friendship functioned. He's an awesome guy and I hope he gets a piece of his own story later.
The timeline was very clear, letting us know how long it had been since the events of Episode 2, while exploring the events that had taken place there and compounding on them until there was even more intrigue and mystery. I began to like Ixkaab a little better, but I'm still not connecting with her. I still adore Micah, absolutely love Rafe and William, champion feisty Diane who really suffered this episode, and fell a little more in love with Joshua in the process.
I can't wait to see what awaits them in the next episode.
““You,” he said, with a grin on his face as wide as the river that flowed past Uncle Amos's farm, “are a prince among men; nay, a king, an emperor, a god. This calls for kidney pie. And a great deal of beer.”
“No,” said Micah.
“Not kidney pie. Tomato.”
“As long as the beer comes with it.””
Episode 4: A Wake in Riverside, by Malinda Lo
Well, this was an interesting one. Full of things going on, lots of decisions made, and yet, it felt shorter than some of the others, yet so full of clever little twists and turns.
Things are heating up for the Tremontaine family, and it's the first real POV we've had for William, and Diane is back, so we get to see it in a lot more detail. I love how formiddable Diane is, but I also love that I can feel that she's backed into a corner and how worried she is. William is completely oblivious, but there's a certain charm to that, because it's Rafe who is occupying his mind all the time. Which, by now, I'm sure you'll realise is something that I'll never complain about.
While I'm still not totally warmed up to Ixkaab, and I still think her attentions towards Tess are bordering on the obsessive, I did finally see where her part of the story was leading. If she can find out, and prove, who killed Ben, then that will change everything! But, she doesn't even realise how much it will impact her own family, too.
Just as no one realises what a boon Micah and Rafe's current project could be in increasing the Tremontaine fortune, if they just paid close enough attention.
I also love that we finally got a hint of William's age (grey at the temples) so we know that, whether Rafe is a teenager (as he somehow behaves) or just a hot-headed twenty-something, we have a May/December romance on the go. What I really love about these two is how irresistible it is between them; they don't want to be caught up in this surprising, sudden attraction, and they don't particularly like it, but they can't resist, either. And, as Joshua and Thaddeus pointed out, it could benefit both of them if they just keep their minds open. Yet, I also love the fact that they have a push-and-pull relationship. They argue, they fight, they have completely different views on things, but it works for them. It makes their chemistry all the more explosive. And I see explosions in the future, now that Diane knows what they're up to.
Joshua continues to impress me. He's such a clever little manipulator, who knows all the right buttons to push to get Rafe to do what is best for him, especially when he can't see it for himself.
Looking forward to seeing how things progress, what Diane is going to do about Highcombe and Rafe, whether Micah will get her time to study in peace, and just how the whole Ben thing is going to end up.
“The duke gave him a gentle smile. “My dear,” he said softly.
Rafe's breath caught in his throat. My dear? Rafe tried to shake off the disturbingly warm feeling rising in his chest, but it was confoundedly difficult, especially when the duke was gazing at him with those blue eyes.”
Episode 5: The Dagger and the Sword, by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Ooh, things are really getting hot!
So, the author of this episode took things in a different direction, by having time lapse, e.g. one scene is present day, the next is so many hours earlier. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but this is one of those cases where it makes sense. Because, the present day scenes add a bit of spice and action, but also mystery, answering questions that are asked in the so-many-hours-earlier sections. So it was actually a really clever way of subtly and carefully providing the information we needed to follow this aspect of the plot.
Oh, Diane! Diane is really struggling, thanks to Rafe being so irresistible. I could feel her panic, the embarrassment of facing the fact that society had discovered William's affair and how badly it reflected on her. It was bad enough to feel the shock and surprise when she found out about it last episode, but this one really put forth the impact that an affair can have on the innocent party. Though, if her actions at the end of this episode are any indication, she doesn't plan to stay innocent for long. Beware a woman scorned, William!
Ixkaab is playing a dangerous game, but she's finally got what she wanted, with Tess, and they're one step closer to figuring out who killed Ben. I loved the fight scenes, they showed Ixkaab at her best, and I'll admit – it took me a while – but I'm finally warming up to her character.
I really loved the addition of Applethorpe. He has a history that no one knows about, is a local to Riverside, and is quite aware of the implications, after discovering who killed Ben, even if he doesn't know the why yet. Speaking of which, neither do we! But, this episode gave us some very good clues and indications as to what that reason might be, and just how dangerous it could be to Diane. And, in effect, to Ixkaab who has no idea that she's potentially sending her family into a financial tailspin.
Now, more than ever, the interwoven threads binding all the characters together can be seen and followed, offering a view of potential outcomes and dangers, if people don't play their part exactly to the letter. Like poor besotted William. There will be hell to pay, and I'm going to enjoy every second of it.
“She was an abomination, that woman, a small golden dagger with a poisoned hilt. Diane, Duchess Tremontaine,”
“He looked up and projected his voice. “And that means the rest of you louts had best leave these two be, because they are under my protection.”
The foreign lady objected to this. “Tess! She is under your protection.”
“Why can't you be?” He seemed genuinely curious.
“Because I'm under my own protection.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “Just Tess, then.” He walked off without another word.”
Episode 6: A Fair Hand, by Patty Bryant
This was another shorter but interesting helping. There is still mystery abound, but the cracks are beginning to show in the calm, cool façade Diane and the others are trying to hide behind. I can't deny that I'm just waiting for the ball to drop and chaos to ensue.
A lot happened in this episode but a lot didn't happen, by which I mean that the main plot of this episode was the upcoming Swan's Ball, and it threw everyone into a tizzy. But, overall, there wasn't a lot going on within the characters themselves.
Rafe is finding it difficult to maintain balance, while dealing with an oblivious lover, an ever watchful and vengeful duchess, and too many things to do that he doesn't want to do. Micah is being manipulated and used, innocently, to improve all their lives, but constantly turned in the wrong direction and left to try to work out the mess they leave her in. Ixkaab is learning the subtleties of political intrigue and just how sneaky nobles can be about hiding their true intentions.
It's an interesting slip of an episode, with a whole lot of impact for the future.
“He smiled. “Yes, I think you'll beat them at their own game. Or maybe even make them play yours.””
Episode 7: The Swan Ball, by Joel Derfner
I feel like I'm oohing and aahing over every other episode, but I can't help it. Each one just gets better and better, adding more to the story, adding more twists, turns, and mystery to what is already a twisty, turny plot of intrigue and mystery.
Here, Joel starts with what seems a confusing present tense, differing from the perpetual past tense used until this. This is used to differentiate Diane's dream sequence from the main text, which made a whole lot of sense when I realised its purpose. Nicely done, Derfner. It was a clever ploy and allowed for a nice switch into breaking the fourth wall. This was done twice – once at the beginning, and once at the end – to let us see the events of all parties without drifting too far into the unbelievable. Because, even omni-present POV can't account for explaining the circumstances of four to eight different people who aren't all in the same room as each other. Breaking the fourth wall, to tell us what was happening, was the only logical thing to do.
I loved the dream sequence, because it gave us a hint of just what secret Diane has been keeping and why it frightened her so much when Ben attempted to expose it. It partly explains her secret, the locket, and just why Ben had to be dispatched. I'm pretty sure it's got something to do with Diane's lineage, and a fatal carriage attack that undoubtedly led to Diane taking the place of someone far above her station. But, only time will tell if I'm right, and I'm holding the rest of my suspicions guarded until I know.
We had the introduction of three new characters in this episode, though I don't believe they'll reappear later. Their purpose was served here, as part of the fourth-wall break and brilliantly so. Still, I adored Andrew and Jack for their brief time as bored musicians, and poor Sapperton who was in way over his head.
I was so close to warning Rafe that he was playing a dangerous game when it all came crashing down around him and fixed itself back into working order. I was thrilled that he was aware enough that he wasn't enjoying his games, but I was also really worried that one false move would ruin everything. And I an NOT ready for my Rafiam ship to sink!
Oh, and while I did enjoy Micah and Ixkaab's parts in this episode, I have to give huge props to Aunt Ixsaabim for being a total kickass heroine! That party scene where she basically snapped her fingers and the entire family shot into motion was perfection.
Just like the ending.
“Rafe inhaled sharply, stopped short. Will turned, and at the sight of his face, Rafe felt the roiling inside him grow inexplicably more violent. He wanted to strike the man, he wanted to kiss him, to wrap him in his embrace, to tangle his fingers in his yellow hair, to caress every part of him not covered by clothing, to spit in his face.”
Episode 8: A City Without Chocolate, by Malinda Lo
Hmm...interesting things are going on. Very interesting.
For me, I'm not overly fond of the writing style of this episode, as it has too many bracketted additions (a pet hate of mine) and ends with an inexplicable present tense scene that encompassed what everyone is up to at one time. While I appreciate that the change of tense is to show that it's different from the others, it feels unnecessary here. I much preferred the breaking-the-fourth-wall approach that Derfner adopted in the previous episode.
We're introduced to a few new characters that aren't really all that important in the grand scheme of things, but which start the ball rolling for other things: two chocolate sellers and one new swordsman. Their roles are to show the title – a city without chocolate – and the consequences of such, as well as the new swordsman offering intriguing information about Ixkaab's investigation into Ben's death, namely that Karleigh himself was once a fond receiver of his company.
Diane, as ever, is devious and shines throughout this episode as the master manipulator.
Rafe finally gets to sit his exam, though we only see part of it. But, my heart swelled right along with his when Will showed up in support.
Thaddeus, high as a kite, is utterly hilarious and I hope to see more of him in the future.
Overall, an interesting episode, but it lacked a little something that I can't place my finger on. Maybe because it focused on the lack of chocolate more than the characters I've come to know and love until now, and their own adventures. In the end, though, it all came together, but it was lacking something.
““I...are you a goat?”
Everyone at the table except for Thaddeus and Micah froze in horror.
Will blinked. “I'm sorry, young man. Are you addressing me?””
Episode 9: Lies In Our Stars, by Paul Witcover
Yet even more intrigue! I swear, these lot never give up and I'm fascinated with every twist and turn they take.
Diane has a big part in the story, but only at the end, as she's plotting to remind the Balam's that they're not her equals, something that she's likely to regret. She has a tendency to underestimate people, despite her great powers of perception.
Micah has the biggest part, however, finally stumbling upon the secret that Ixkaab was hoping she'd never discover, and leaving it all in Rafe's capable hands. But, what he intends to do with that information could be careless or it could change everything.
It's so intriguing to watch it all unfold, knowing that there are multiple avenues the story could take, but never knowing which one will succeed.
For the length of it, it felt like a short episode. Maybe because it wasn't jumping through POV's quite as often as some of the others. But it certainly had a huge plot impact.
“Ah, gods, the duke had such a confounded effect on him! It was as if Will had put him under a spell...or, rather, Rafe thought, a curse. He had but to catch a glimpse of Will, or not even that, just to smell him, for his body to respond with a fervor he couldn't resist, had no desire to resist – on the contrary, he yearned more than anything to surrender to it. And surrender he did, repeatedly, holding nothing back, giving of himself to the very dregs. It was bliss. It was torture.”
“Home, he said. Nor had he been lying. Wherever Will was, there was his home. He knew that now.”
Episode 10: Shadowroot, by Joel Derfner
No. No, no, no, no, no. It's not allowed to end like that. It's not even allowed to HINT at that!
Diane is a ruthless, unforgiving, devious cow and while I admire a strong woman, she's gone too far. My poor Rafe!
I love that William had been quite aware of Diane's ruthless nature and political mind before now, but he's still naive and a bit stupid about just what she's really like.
I want to know who Joshua is sleeping with.
I'm worried that Tess is not going to be okay by the time Ixkaab reaches her, despite what she just did.
There was a slip into present tense at the end, at the fight between Ixkaab and the swordsman, which I can't really explain.
Again, a lot happened in a short space of time. A lot of really, really important things. While I liked the academic additions – the letter and the extracts – I'm worried. And I have to go to bed worried, refusing to skim or search for the answers I need, but unable to stay awake for the next three hours it will take to read the last three episodes! I hope you're happy, Derfner!
““I await your wry comment,” said the duke, his voice barely a whisper.
Rafe answered him just as softly. “Alas, my lord. I have, for perhaps the first time in my adult life, none to offer.””
“Rafe couldn't believe these words were issuing from his mouth. “A wife is a very complicated thing, especially when she's a duchess. Make amends. I'm easy.”
Will smiled and cocked his head. “So I've been told.”
“Ah, but your information is, alas, out of date. Haven't you heard?” Rafe turned, impish, and sauntered away. He looked back over his shoulder to see Will smiling at him. “I'm in love.””
Episode 11: Go and Tell the Morning Star, by Alaya Dawn Johnson
I didn't need a good cry, but I got one. Thanks for that.
Duchamp has mostly been in the background until now, like any good servant, but here he really shines. It's clear that he sees his loyalty and duty to William, first and foremost, so he accepts and helps Rafe as much as he can, while he's falling apart.
Rafe broke my heart, and that's all I'm fit to say about it.
Again, there were editing issues, and an incomprehensible switch to present tense for one scene, not even at the end of the episode.
There were hints of portents and imaginings, hallucinations and such. But it was a great sign that everyone was on edge and that no one is able to think clearly. The lines have been too blurred, too crossed and too many relationships built to hold a strong allegiance to anyone blindly.
All I can do is hope against hope that Kaab makes the right decision – which is to betray her family. Because, if she doesn't, I might fall apart right along with Rafe.
“Maybe love would be enough to counteract whatever force was battering at Will's mind.
Maybe it will be enough, Rafe thought, and looked up automatically for that star that could not speak. But all he could see were clouds.”
Episode 12: A Tale of Two Ladies, by Malinda Lo
Damn it, Ixkaab! What are you doing?
And, finally, we begin to see the truth. Seventeen years earlier, how it all came about. Because, without Diane, none of this would have happened or been necessary. And selfish little Ixkaab is happy to lie to whoever is needed to get her happily ever after with Tess, but she's just made it likely that Diane will kill Will, Rafe and Micah! All of whom are innocent and only in this mess because of Ixkaab. Yet, what no one seems to realise is that all three could be shipped of to Highcombe, live in relative poverty, and still all be ridiculously happy, just to have each other!
My only hope is that Duchamp is loyal to William, and Rafe is loyal to William.
Episode 13: Departures, by Ellen Kushner
It seems that holding out for even the hint of a happy ending was pointless. All I feel is a need to cry, deep sadness, and worry.
My poor Rafe was being manipulated, but I'm so proud of him for putting his love of Will before anything else, even a strong drug, to remember to be himself. I can see what his plan is, but I'm worried that he won't be able to accomplish it in time to do any good.
Just as I originally thought, Ixkaab is too selfish and self-absorbed to be someone I really like or want to read more about. She had the weapon in her hands that would solve everyone's problems, even her family's, and she wasted it on a deal she could easily have accomplished on her own. In fact, a deal that Rafe had already promised to make with her, but she wasn't smart enough to understand.
My heart is breaking for Will and Rafe, it looks like Micah's safety is in dire jeopardy, and Diane the wicked witch of the North is winning.
If I hadn't already agreed to read Season 2, I might not take the risk, because I don't want to see this kind of sadness spreading. But, I'll keep going so that I can, hopefully, see it all come around to fruition and see Rafe get his happily ever after.
“Tomorrow, he thought. Tomorrow the gates will be opened. They cannot keep the world out forever. And they cannot keep me from my love.”
This collection sucked me right into the world of Riverside and Tremontaine. I've not only added the paperbacks of all three seasons to my pay-day buy list, but I've also added the three paperbacks of the Riverside series. I just know that Kushner can't disappoint me, now.
The overall setting of the plot has strong hints of A Song of Ice and Fire, and The Fitz and the Fool Trilogy. All of which is to the good, because I love those books and that type of world. It adds enough historical possibilities to enough fantasy elements that I end up with the best of both worlds.
Every episode has a complete story arc all of its own, but which also pieces together with the other episodes to create a woven tapestry of an overall arc throughout the season. Each episode is just a small part of a bigger puzzle.
Each episode adds more and more mystery, asking and answering questions within each episode, that all boil down to one large plot that it intricately woven between a handful of characters:
Diane and William Tremonatine – Duke and Duchess – who are suffering financial difficulties that William is largely unaware of, because Diane has made some unwise gambles that didn't pay off, and is scrambling to fix the awful mess they're in.
Rafe – a talented, passionate scholar who falls head over heels for William, gets in the way of Diane's plots, and takes in the helpless, hapless, and innocently naive Micah.
Micah – a girl everyone assumes is a boy, due to her cousin's plan of dressing her so to keep her safe on the unfamiliar streets of the city. She's a farm girl with a head for numbers, exceedingly talented, and adorably innocent and unaware of the ramifications her numbers could have on an entire people.
Ixkaab – first daughter of the first daughter, fighter, member of the service, and irrascible hot-head. She's got a thing for Tess the Hand, a master female forger – huzzah for women's rights! – and skill with a blade and for spying. But, in trying to protect her family from one threat, she haplessly stumbles into ignoring another much more serious threat.
Applethorpe – a skilled swordsman, fascinated by Ixkaab's fighting ability, who has some secret past that took him his home of Riverside, taught him skill with the sword, and brought him back an even bigger mystery than before. He knows people, understands political undercurrents, and inadvertently drops himself right in the middle of a wasps nest of political intrigue and mayhem.
Through all these characters – all of whom provide a POV scene of their own, at some point, no matter how large or minor – have a bearing on the overall plot. Through their eyes (sometimes omni-present) we watch the mystery of the Tremontaine house unfold. And potentially disintegrate. And I absolutely love that it's Ellen Kushner who bookends the season, writing the first and last chapters. Although, I do have to admit that Episode 10, by Joel Derfner gave me a book hangover.
Yes, there were some editing issues, a few spaces before commas, inconsistent editing, a change of font issue, missing full stops, backwards quotation marks. Small things that would probably go largely unnoticed if I wasn't a naturally picky grammar/editing nazi. Which I hold my hands up to confess I am. Things that mean I can't give a 5 star, flawless, rating. Each episode contains editing issues and inconsistently use a single scene of present tense, that doesn't always make sense.
I have to mark what I have in front of me, and with those errors, and a few 4 star episodes amongst the rest of the 5 star episodes, I had to properly calculate the final rating.
That will not stop me from devouring Season 2 over the next week, nor buying all three seasons, and the entire Riverside trilogy, in paperback the minute I get paid.