Diverse Book of the Month: Tremontaine: The Complete Season One by Ellen Kushner & Co.

Happy August! Summer is almost over, but there is still some vacation time left. Whether you’re looking for a page-turner to bring along with you as you travel, or you’re just looking for something to read before you go to bed, let me recommend this month’s Diverse Book of the Month, Tremontaine: The Complete Season One, written by… well, tons of authors.

Y’see, Tremontaine is a bit of a social experiment. First published as 13 “episodes” (i.e. chapters) once a week, it’s the project of seven writers who wanted to see how readers would react if they released a book like a TV show, piece by piece on a weekly basis (hence the subtitle: The Complete Season One).

The lead author is Ellen Kushner, as Tremontaine takes place in the world of her Swordspoint series. (Note: You don’t have to read Swordspoint to enjoy Tremontaine, as it takes place fifteen years before those books — so it’s a prequel, not a sequel.) Other writers include: Malinda Lo, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, Patty Bryant, and Paul Witcover. Each episode/chapter is written by one of these authors, who’ve managed to write one long, cohesive, and fun story in collaboration.

Summary: Tremontaine focuses on several protagonists: Ixkaab (Kaab for short), a foreign girl in exile out to redeem herself and save her reputation with her family; Rafe, a scholar determined to start his own school; Micah, a young mathematical genius who reluctantly leaves her farm life behind to study in the city; Diane, the cunning and secretive Duchess of Tremontaine; and her husband, William, who falls in love with a certain scholar… When Ben, the bodyguard of Kaab’s forger girlfriend, Tess, is found murdered, Kaab takes it upon herself to find out whodunnit. What she finds out is a scandal of the century.

What Makes This Book Diverse: EVERYONE IS GAY! Okay, not everyone. The Duchess isn’t, and neither are Kaab’s relatives. But Kaab is, and so are Rafe and William, and so are all of Rafe’s roommates. The greatest thing about this series is that these LGBT+ characters’ narratives are not stereotypical LGBT+ narratives. This is not a story about someone struggling to come out to their family, or learning to accept their sexuality, or facing bullying and prosecution for who they love. The LGBT+ characters in this book are given the same treatment that a heterosexual character would get; they go on adventures, solve mysteries, play politics, and have goals unrelated to their sexuality; their romances are just the icing on the cake, subplots, the same way a romance would be in any other non-romance novel. In Tremontaine, homosexuality is just as accepted as heterosexuality. It is not the cause of scandal (unless, y’know, someone’s cheating on their wife) or bigotry. No one bats an eye at two people of the same gender kissing in public. It’s wonderful, and is officially the first fantasy setting I’ve encountered that isn’t just an imprint of our own bigoted cultures here in the real world.

On top of that, Kaab and her family are black, and her girlfriend Tess is described as “large”/”round”/etc. So not only do we have LGBT+ representation, but we also get representation of different ethnicities AND a heavy-set woman who gets a lovely romance plot.

It is also an #InOurOwnVoices book. Alaya Dawn Johnson is a black woman; Ellen Kushner is bisexual; Malinda Lo is lesbian; Joel Derfner is gay; Racheline Maltese identifies as “queer”. (I’m not sure about Patty Bryant, who has no Goodreads presence, or Paul Witcover — but at the very least, their participation in this project proves that they are allies of the diversity movement.) The result is a realistic portrayal of LGBT+ and POC experiences.

Additionally, one of the characters, Micah, is a savant. Though it’s never named, one might assume that she has autism. Loud noises frighten her, she has trouble understanding emotions, and she doesn’t do well in crowds. But she is still a complex character; the authors do a wonderful job of showing how she fits into this ragtag group of characters, and portraying her as a human being with vast wants and needs that are not just related to her autism.

*Whew* Okay. This series definitely earns the award for most diverse characters jam-packed into one story ever. But rather than take away from the story, as some “anti-SJW” types might whine about, the diversity actually makes for a refreshing read.

Genre: Swashbuckling Murder Mystery (I really don’t know where to categorize it — it’s not quite fantasy, because there’s no magic, but it’s not historical fantasy either because it doesn’t take place on our earth! So, uh… we’ll just call it a swashbuckling murder mystery for now…)

Trigger Warnings:

  1. Mild gore/murder
  2. Graphic sexual content (not a book for children)

Pros:

  • As I said above, Tremontaine is unique in so many ways, the most prominent being that it is a refreshing LGBT+ narrative, without focus on the hardships of being LGBT+. (Not that those “traditional” LGBT+ narratives aren’t valuable or noteworthy, not that they don’t do their part in helping young readers [and maybe even old readers] come to terms with their sexuality. But it is so nice for once to read about gay characters living their lives after they are happily out.)
  • The idea of an episodic novel may not be entirely new (novels were often released serially in the distant past), but in this day and age of the Internet it is. The presentation of the book, first as a serial and later as a “complete season” is innovative and fun.
  • Bouncing off of that point, the idea of a collaborative novel is awesome. It makes reading each new chapter like diving into a new book (sort of) because the authors all write in their own voices (this can be a con too, unfortunately — see below). The authors do a surprisingly great job of creating consistent characters, even though their voices throughout each chapter are vastly different.
  • Speaking of characterization, by the end of this book you are bound to care about all of them. The antagonist is one of the most fascinating I’ve ever encountered. She, too, is a breath of fresh air as her personal motives do not center around a man.

Cons:

  • Tremontaine is a looooong book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But I and many other readers on Goodreads felt that it was slow to start, and it took a long while for the plot to really pick up the pace. (Still, I think the great characterization makes up for this.)
  • Switching from author to author each chapter can sometimes get a little jarring. A few of the authors had similar writing styles, but then there were two or three that sounded nothing like the others. It could be distracting for the first page or two of each chapter, especially after reading a chapter long enough to let you settle into the prior author’s voice.
  • A common problem with having multiple POVs in a book is that readers are bound to care about one character more than the others. This can make getting through other POVs a chore. That being said, I personally eventually came to care for all of the protagonists, even if I only wanted to read about Micah at first.
  • The ending… well, it’s not dissatisfying, especially since season two is already underway. But be warned: Just like a season of a TV show, it does end on a cliffhanger. If you’re looking for a one-off book to read, and not a series, this is not the book for you.

Personal Reaction: My excitement levels for this book were all over the place. I’d heard great things about it on Twitter, where I follow a few of the authors. So when it was one of the Kindle Daily Deals, I bought it immediately and could not wait to read it.

Unfortunately, it took me a long time to get into it, and for a while I was disappointed. Even after Ben’s murder — the driving force behind the whole plot — FINALLY happens, things didn’t pick up for a while. It took me a very long time to get into the story at all. But by halfway through, I found myself swept up in all the drama, and in the last 10% of the book, things REALLY start rolling downhill fast, and soon I came to love Tremontaine.

On top of great characterization and an intriguing mystery, this book has snappy dialogue and a great sense of humor. The Duchess is one of my personal favorite villains ever. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for a refreshing swashbuckling tale with swordfights and romance and a dash of political intrigue!

So that’s all for August’s pick. As always, feel free to leave a comment below if you have any questions or want to put in your own two cents. Onto the next!

Happy reading!

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