on 2 April 1999
Is _Swordspoint_ fantasy? Is it (quasi-)historical fiction? Does it matter? Whatever label you give Ellen Kushner's first full-length novel, it makes for fantastic reading.
_Swordspoint_ transports us back in time (with a little bit of a shift) to a City that is recognizable as London (somewhat in disguise), in an era roughly equivalent to the 18th century (or perhaps the late 17th). The action centers on the personal and professional adventures of the duellist Richard St. Vier, whose career and romantic attachments draw him into a proverbial web of political intrigue and socio-economic conflict. By the time the story reaches its climax, the entire City -- hoi polloi and beau monde alike -- will be embroiled in the events that circle around St. Vier and his emotionally troubled lover.
Kushner assembles a cast of wonderful characters (she particularly succeeds in creating gay heroes who aren't tokens or caricatures). She also brings to her story a complex, textured plot and, equally important, a delightfully wicked prose style just bursting with mordant humor and piquant observations. In fact, I remember when I first heard Kushner on the radio (she currently hosts the "Sound and Spirit" segment on NPR), I barely made the connection. On the air, she sounds like such a kind and nurturing person that it's hard to believe that the same individual could write in a way that's so gleefully decadent and dark in tone.
On the whole, _Swordspoint_ takes the fencing excitement and the political tensions of a book like Sabatini's _Scaramouche_, mixes it with the sexual entanglements of Choderlos de Laclos's _Dangerous Liaisons_, spices it up with the social commentary of an Oscar Wilde... then, as if that weren't enough, adds a quality all its own. _Swordspoint_ is entertainment with depth; I wish more fantasy -- even more contemporary literature in general -- were written like this. It would make me (and I bet a whole lot of other readers) very happy if Kushner wrote some sequels set in the same City, populated by the same heroes. I suppose we can only hope....
on 28 March 2006
"Let the fairy-tale begin on a winter's morning, then, with one drop of blood new-fallen on the ivory snow: a drop as bright as a clear-cut ruby, red as the single spot of claret on the lace cuff."
First published in 1987, Ellen Kushner's _Swordspoint_ is a rich example of what SF/F circles sometimes called 'interstitial fiction', a sort of confluence of fantasy with modernism. While a lot of such books plump for modern or near-modern settings, Kushner's glittering world looks a little farther back for its inspiration, if not so far back as most conventional fantasy - to Regency England (broadly speaking). The society is a highly stratified one, according to birth and economic standing (and to some extent by gender, within the classes). This is mirrored in a division of civic space: the noble families (a council from whose number rule the city) live in the elevated reaches of the Hill; everyone else crowds into the alleys and decaying tenements of Riverside. The scope for moving between the two is limited. Riversiders go up to the Hill as servants, while the nobles sometimes slum it in Riverside for insalubrious entertainment and dodgy dealings.
The protagonists, Richard and Alec, are two characters who cross this boundary rather more frequently - if with little greater ease - than most. Richard is a swordsman, in considerable demand among the nobility for duelling 'challenges' (effectively contract killings), and prized for his efficiency and discretion in such matters. Alec, meanwhile, is a (former) student of the University with a noble's demeanour, although he remains cagey about his background. They're also lovers, and live together openly in Riverside, sexuality - at least for men - being one of the few areas in society that is relatively unconstrained.
Their relationship is a complex joy of fierce mutual dependence and deep tenderness. Both men by turns stimulate and temper each others' worst traits and excesses. Alec is the perfect object for Richard's damaged sense of honour; someone whom he can both protect and be seen to protect through the very public means of challenging (and frequently killing) anyone who threatens his partner. Alec gives his life purpose and joy, holding him back from being simply an emotionless murderer-for-hire. Protecting him also helps Richard to assuage old guilt; we learn in passing that Richard killed an old lover, Jessamyn, in a violent quarrel. Alec, meanwhile, thrills to Richard's violence on his behalf, often deliberately provoking people into such situations. At the same time, however, his self-destructive tendencies leave him half-hoping that eventually he will find someone from whom Richard cannot protect him. Alec is a witty, urbane physical coward, learning the ways of a world quite alien to him through his life with Richard - and helping his partner to negotiate the more dangerous reaches of the world he knows, that of the politicking on the Hill.
Violence is, as may be imagined, a fact of everyday life in this society. It is deeply unwise to walk around alone at night (which is, of course, why Alec does it); bystanders instantly and callously wager upon any conflict that looks set to end in a fight; entertainment is found in cock-fighting and the like. This mindset extends to mortality: personal honour on the Hill is built around the legalised brutality of the challenge system, while tavern disputes in Riverside are settled on a first-body-on-the-floor basis. In both cases, questions are rarely asked, and the immediacy and ever-present nature of the violence naturally strips it of much of the shock for participants and witnesses - but not so for the average reader. In this, the novel achieves that sense of dislocation and otherness that is (or should be, done properly) common to both fantasy and historical fiction - an encounter with a subtly different sensibility and worldview.
The book isn't without its bumps and flaws. The dialogue sometimes veers into the melodramatic (although, given the book's subtitle, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised), often shouldering a burden of emotional expression that ought to be shared to a greater degree by body language and viewpoint narrative. (The latter suffers mostly, I think, from Kushner's determination to keep secret impending plot twists). There are times when it feels as if Kushner struggles to make it hold together as a novel; the short-story origins of much of the material are quite plain in places. The pacing can be choppy, with characters and storylines frequently disappearing for long periods. The structure especially falters towards the overly-talky, too-many-revelations climax.
On the whole, then, it's a beautiful first novel with all a first novel's shakiness. Swordspoint gives us memorable characters in a rich world - I loved the fireworks displays, the unseasonable outdoor parties, the dicing, the torch-hiring, the relationships - couched in elegant prose and some very witty dialogue exchanges.
on 29 July 1999
Set in an unnamed city and its criminal suburb, Riverside, "Swordspoint" is a masterpiece, period. The intrigue is dizzying, the characters finely drawn, and the world itself seductive. (A reader's desperate call: A sequel would be appreciated!) There is humor, witty and occasionally mordant, and even romance. More than one reading is required to master all the complexities of the story. When Richard St. Vier, the foremost swordsman in Riverside, takes an assignment from an anonymous noble, it looks as though the job might be fairly simple. Before long, he finds himself caught up in a power play unfolding between the nobles of the City Council: not he, not his lover, and not his past will remain untouched. And that has hardly scratched the surface.
As mentioned earlier, the characters of "Swordspoint" are superbly drawn. Richard and his lover Alec are more like anti-heroes than anything else--one is in effect a hired killer, although not without his own sense of honor, ; the other is acid-tongued and emotionally troubled, at the same time needy and vicious--and yet the author manages to create a startling sympathy for them. Even Alec's morbid obsessions are, in a strange sense, preferable to the refined intrigues of the upper class, the chess players living on "the Hill" who move Richard and the other Riversiders about as though they are mere possessions. Michael Godwin, the young nobleman who takes up swordwork as a bored hobby and finds himself learning in earnest, is a fine counterpoint to Richard's world-weary attitude: for Michael, seeing his teacher before his eyes is traumatic; for Richard, it's only part of a swordsman's life. Similarly, the Duchess Diane Tremontaine, with her veiled meanings and hidden games, is a mastery of subtlety.
The world of Riverside and the Hill is a dark and decadent one--in many ways, the story is as cynical as Alec on his worst days--but it is one worth visiting...and revisiting...you get the idea.
It's that good.
on 17 October 2011
Ellen Kushner's debut novel set in the Riverside series, which consists of three other novels and half-dozen short stories. The world of Riverside is an odd place, slightly renaissance Italy, slightly Shakespearian London, the city and state left unnamed by the author, the people free of rule of a king but festering under a maze of law that keeps a firm caste system in place.
This novel and the three short stories included in the back all focus on the swordsman, Richard St Vier. We first meet him fleeing through snow, leaving a trail of fresh blood that isn't his, running from a nobleman's party back to the Riverside - a notoriously rough section of the city where he resides.
Richard St Vier is a master swordsman, the best there is in the city, possibly the best in living memory and in the view of a handful the best there ever was or will be again. Cliché as his silhouette may be, he has faults that make him one of my favourite characters. He has a dangerous anger, and is quite literally insane, though he keeps himself in check for the most part.
Another character that I adore is St Vier's lover, Alec, who has quite a few Snape-like qualities that just made me grin at some points during the book. Alec is a mysterious scholar who left the Hill (where the rich reside) and the University to find his own death in the Riverside but instead found St Vier. He is cold, abrasive, rude, arrogant and on occasion suicidal and while the love between the two men is not written plainly is it a ferocious and beautifully scripted thing. They are not perfectly made for each other, but they are perfect with each other and sweet in the most realistic of ways.
As a love story, I adored it. As a story about courtly politics it was quite boring but infused with so many wonderful and deep characters I didn't care for the most part.
I have read Kushner's work before, Thomas The Rhymer, and enjoyed it though I was not left with the same yearning to buy the rest of Kushner's works as I feel now.
For a book written a year after I was born, and a début, I was expecting it to be lacking in quality. While there are some issues it surprised me. I found I was deeply engaged with the characters and enjoyed the world building very much.
One fault I was continually struggling with was the switching of points-of-view that happened without warning between any character in the scene. It gave the book a very raw feel to it, and did distract somewhat but was never too abrupt or confusing to truly detract from the novel's quality. Another issue was sometimes the author didn't give the reader enough information about where a character stood in a room, and that was a little bemusing, especially in one of the swordfights. I was confused as to how St Vier could be sitting and having a swordfight at the same time at one point. This, however, I can make excuses for. It is stylistic and I have grown rather fond of it.
Some parts of the book I found rather dull, but for the most part I loved it. It was a very satisfying mix of gossip, swordfighting, strange love, insanity and warped laws. A shame there wasn't much in the way of sex scenes, but eff it, I have a healthy, pervy imagination.
The short stories that accompanied it were much the same, the first two wonderful glimpses on St Vier's and Alec's life together and the last one so bittersweet it left me heartsore and miserable.
I defiantly plan on bolstering my private library with more of Kushner's novels. She has a new fan in me. (Also; having a debut novel with gay main characters in the mid-80's makes her very kick-ass in my opinion.)
on 23 January 1998
"Swordpoint: A Melodrama of Manners" may have been published as fantasy, but this is a book for everyone who delights in fine prose, delicious dialogue, dazzlingly complex characters, and riveting story-telling. It's one of the best books I've ever read, and it's no surprise Kushner has a devoted following in the fantasy genre and among mainstream readers alike. If you love Dorothy Dunnett, then you owe it to yourself to pick up "Swordpoint"--as well as the sexy new novella set among swordmen in that same city called "The Fall of Kings" by Kushner and Delia Sherman (in the book "Bending the Landscape," edited by Nicola Griffith and Stephen Pagel.) I envy anyone reading this delightfully wicked novel for the first time.
on 14 July 2002
'Swordspoint' feels like Alexandre Dumas more than Anne McCaffrey. It was loaned to me by a friend who told me this was the best book about fencing ever. And she was right.
Several strata of society are well created, the swordsmen, the thieves and vagabonds, the aristocrats and rulers. All have their place. The city isn't named. The time is unknown, possibly 17th or 18th century or maybe our own time on another world. Yet as vague as these things are, her society is wonderfully specific.
If you can get your hands on a copy, read it. You won't be disaapointed.
on 27 May 2010
As the title suggests, I really enjoyed this book. The characters were interesting and believable. Especially the characters of Alec and Richard. The relationships between the characters are also believable, but still entertaining. You often can't tell what one character is going to do from one minute to the next, but this works because they are so well written.
However, I did feel that this story was lacking a lot...it felt a bit like a rather long short story, which, although very good and entertaining, it seemed to lead up to something big, then fall short. It led up to a big court case that lasted for several chapters, but wasn't very interesting. There were so many characters for something that seemed quite short, so it was hard to keep track of who was who, who was where, and who was doing who.
I felt what this story really lacked was a fantastic sex scene. I'm usually against them in most books, but I have to say in this one, it really, really needed it! She kept hinting that one was coming, and then dodging over it at the last minute. This just didn't work for me.
I like books I feel that I can read over and over again, but this one I didn't feel that I wanted to read again.
So basically, this is a great one-off read, with great, loveable characters, but the storyline is crowded and a bit uninteresting. It could have been so much better. But I still recommend reading it!
on 19 September 2012
Genuinely great characters, witty and well-written. One of the most absorbing relationships in fantasy fiction, you really do root for them rather than end up skimming the cliche romance bits (like I usually do when fantasy authors attempt romance). Quick, witty dialogue. Fairly good plot but underdeveloped world-building.
on 2 August 1997
This book was recommended to me by several people. I finished reading it yesterday and immediately sent it off to a friend to read. Kushner is able to make you root for some pretty unpleasant characters and not feel badly doing so. The plot is intricate and multi-layered, and she lets the reader figure things out without explaining every last detail. Although the ending did not come as a surprise to me, I enjoyed this book from start to finish.
on 3 November 1998
In a word -- stunning. I read this book in one night, without stopping. I could not put it down. I was shocked by Ms. Kushner's ability to make me like her rather nasty and wicked characters. I tend to want my "good guys" to be very good; not sort of, possibly, a little bit good. The fact that she had me caught up in the lives of these characters and actually "rooting for" them is amazing. A tour-de-force.