Tremontaine: When Collaboration Really Works

I find all kinds of collaborations interesting, from the centuries-long shared-world collaboration of Arthuriana among Europeans to the amazing Mahabharata of India. I think the greatest collaborations are more than the sum of their parts.

Nowadays, collaborations are happening in all kinds of forms, in print form in our genre not just the traditional pair of co-authors: there was a rise of senior writer-and-junior writer combos, and the continued series.

Then there are the collaborations that share a lot in common with film development, in which writers gather (in film it’s the writers’ room) and hammer out a story between them all.

Then they either go off separately and write portions, or they pass material back and forth, each adding or subtracting or putting their own spin on the emerging narrative.

The most successful of these that has come to my attention lately is Tremontaine,  which initially came out in episodes from Serial Box.

Serial Box in itself is interesting: they are using a TV model for readers. The episodes come out weekly, and I believe most if not all are developed by teams. The episodes individually are cheap—less than you’d spend on a Starbucks coffee.

Tremontaine has produced two seasons so far. The newly published book called Tremontaine comprises Season One. Season Two completed its Serial Box run not long ago, and presumably will appear in book form before long. The project is overseen by Ellen Kushner, the award-winning author of the seminal book in the Riverside series, Swordspoint.

 Published in 1987, Swordspoint is set in a vaguely European city with a strong overlay of the grungily creative and dangerous streets of New York, which has its own dynamically evolving culture.

The two main settings are the mean streets of Riverside, and the Hill across the river, where the aristocrats dwell when away from their estates. The land is ruled by a council. Both worlds within this city are dangerous; on the Hill, the wounds don’t show, but are just as lethal as the steel in Riverside.

I found that Swordspoint, like certain other books published during the eighties, showed a strong influence of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, successful because Kushner possessed the writing chops to pull off that exhilarating mixture of dueling wit and stylishly languorous danger, complicated politics and emotional intensity, centering the story around the high-octane love affair between Alec, putative student at the university and heir to a dukedom, and Richard, his swordsman, who is the best of the best.

Other characters emerged with equal fascination, most notably the Duchess of Tremontaine, powerful and brilliant, as cold and cutting as a flawless diamond.

Kushner has since that time published a host of short works in this world, and two books: The Privilege of the Sword,  which takes place later in Alec’s life once he’s chosen young Katherine to become his heir—if she masters the sword—and The Fall of the Kings (co-authored by award winner Delia Sherman), which takes place still later, when Katherine is old, and it is possible that magic might be seeping back into the world, along with a fascination with the old (and bloodily discarded) idea of kingship. (There is always a subtle hint of magic, though very oblique. In fact, you only pick up some of the hints after rereading the books.)

The Privilege of the Sword enters the world of girls on the Hill, most of them from aristocratic and wealthy families but themselves relatively powerless as they reach the age to be married off.

These girls have their own coded language as well as dreams, and Katherine negotiates both worlds—reality and dreams, the Hill and Riverside—with engaging wit and courage. The Fall of the Kings returns to the male world, specifically the all-male university, where passions run high: intellectual, spiritual, and physical. (And by the way it has a terrific audiobook —produced under the auspices of Neil Gaiman, it’s a full on radio play, complete with music and extras.)

For the Tremontaine project, Kushner and her team of seven writers—in the first season, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, Patty Bryant, and Paul Witcover—chose to go back in time, to when the Duchess of Tremontaine was younger, her beloved duke still at her side, and her daughter married among the Campions in the countryside.

This is the time when Tremontaine fortunes were uncertain, and trade was relatively new, bringing spices and especially chocolate from a distant country with a flavor of the great Aztec nation. Chocolate becomes a very important commodity. The duchess begins negotiations with the Balam family, through their daughter Ixkaab, a lesbian swashbuckler, as daughters are the chief agents of trade among the Kinwiinik.

We meet Rafe Fenton, passionate, mercurial, brilliant but scattered scion of stolid merchants, who thinks he is onto something interesting about the stars. He falls in with Micah, who he assumes is a boy, and who wants nothing more than to study math. Micah is a savant—and comes very near to discovering the math behind navigation.

Which would have a powerful effect on trade. . .

The machinations are absorbing, the tension rising and falling as the characters meet and mate (or become enemies), gradually widening the cast as we encounter Tess the forger, and Vincent Applethorpe, brilliant swordsman. All along we slowly discover the Duchess’s backstory, and hoo boy, it’s a corker. The twists and turns wring the reader through all the emotions, laughter and tenderness, horror and extreme tension as everyone is brought to a climactic encounter that is impossible to predict to the very last word.

Collaborations work when the writers find not only a compatible process but the space to bring individual strengths to complement the others’. In the Tremontaine project, Kushner seems to have brought her considerable background in theater and radio drama to bear in guiding her writing team, knowing when to keep the focus on Riverside’s distinct milieu, and when to back off and let her writers explore on their own.

The result I found unputdownable—and of course I had to sign right up for Season Two.



Tremontaine: When Collaboration Really Works — 7 Comments

  1. I actually think that Tremontaine is a significant improvement over The Fall of the Kings, which had no interesting women in it, and just sort of ended–like it was supposed to be a series, but didn’t.

    Every character is interesting in Tremontaine, but the duke really got to me. I hope there’s more about him.

    • I liked the duke, too. But my fave I think is Micah. What a delightful character in so many ways!

  2. I was part of Whitehall, another Serial Box collaboration, and found the work–and the process–fascinating. Tremontaine is particularly successful as a model of this new form, but I think most of the SB collaborations are successful..

    • I really enjoyed Whitehall a great deal. I hope it has another season. Tremontaine had the advantage of a ready-made audience, as the books are (justly, IMO) popular. Other series had to deal with a cold start.

  3. Thanks again, Sherwood, for more intriguing reading. I didn’t know such productions existed! O, brave new/old media world!

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