Introduction to "The Death of the Duke"
By Jed Hartman
30 July 2012
This is the introduction to "The Death of the Duke," by Ellen Kushner
As I step down from Strange Horizons fiction editing, the new editors were kind enough to allow me one last opportunity to curate a favorite story. This is the one I picked.
I fell for Richard and Alec before I knew I was bi.
It was 1990, and a friend had recommended this book called Swordspoint to me, and I read it and was delighted. By a lot of things about it, but most especially by the protagonists, the swordsman Richard St. Vier and his university-student lover Alec.
It wasn't the first time I'd ever encountered queer protagonists in speculative fiction; I had read Delany, for example. But non-tragic portrayals of queer characters in sf were rare in my experience. And as I wrote at the time, other than in Delany's work, "Even supposedly bi protagonists tend not to have homosexual relationships on-screen; such relationships are mentioned as having happened in the past (and the character's current lover is of the opposite sex), or are otherwise non-central to the story."
I was also both pleased and a little dubious about another aspect of the book: it was clearly marked as a fantasy novel (Thomas Canty cover, said "Tor Fantasy" on the spine, set in a secondary world with pre-modern technology, explicitly described—in the opening paragraphs—in fairytale terms), and yet there was no explicit magic anywhere in the book. I didn't know what to make of that, but it was an early step on the road to expanding my ideas about genre.
Swordspoint was not without flaw; it was a first novel. But it was an excellent first novel. I think the three-page letter I wrote to Ellen after meeting her at a convention may have been the first fan letter I ever wrote to an author. (Re-reading it twenty years later, it's more than a little embarrassing. But recognizably me.)
But I'm not here to talk about Swordspoint as such.
Sometime around the time I read that book, I attended an event of Ellen's—a reading at a convention, I think—and if I recall correctly through the hazy blur of memory, someone asked if she was going to write a sequel to Swordspoint, and she said no, but that there might be more Riverside stories about other characters. And I seem to recall that at another con, some time later, when she confessed that she had written another Richard and Alec story, there was much rejoicing among the audience.
Which brings us to the story at hand. "The Death of the Duke" never mentions Alec nor Richard by name; I hope and expect that to readers unfamiliar with the residents of Riverside and the Hill, it works as a story in its own right. But knowing the backstory, knowing who this dying decadent Duke was in his youth, forty years earlier (according to the official timeline), adds resonance and poignancy.
This story may still be my favorite piece that Ellen's written, and that's saying a lot. Here are some of the things I love about it:
- The sense of characters having achieved some maturity. Richard and Alec had wild youths, and the Duke here still has some spirit. But he's grown up, and his perspective is different.
- Its tone. To achieve an elegiac mood without crossing the line into maudlin is a relatively rare accomplishment in my experience of short sf.
- Its prose. "Blood and no healing, only scars closing over a dirty wound." "the mirror of a shadow." "She felt her heart twist and turn over, close to the child she carried, so that there was room for little inside her but pain and love." And the lines that subtly slip into into iambs, almost pentameter, without calling attention to themselves. It's all lovely.
And one more thing:
Swordspoint was explicitly marked as a fairytale in its opening, though it also fairly explicitly undermined that label. With this story, Ellen further undermines the fairytale idea. I think that what I love most about this story is the ways in which it's about love, and jealousy; and, in particular, about having multiple loves over the course of a lifetime, not the One True Love that fairytales teach us to expect.
That it manages to do that while at the same time showing us the ultimate fate of two beloved characters is even more to Ellen's credit.
But enough of my thoughts about the story. Instead of reading about the story, you can read it yourself. So without further ado, I'm very pleased to be able to present to you Ellen Kushner's "The Death of the Duke."