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Swordspoint Mass Market Paperback – 1989
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From Publishers Weekly
In the highly stratified world of Kushner's nameless old city, the aristocrats living in fine mansions on the Hill settle their differences by sending to the thieves' den of Riverside for swordsmen who will fight to the death for a point of someone else's honor. Young Lord Michael Godwin is so taken by these romantic figures that he studies the art himselfuntil challenged by the best of them. Master of the Sword, Richard St. Vier is picky in his contracts and precise in his killing but he nevertheless becomes embroiled in the nobility's political, social and sexual intrigues. When his lover Alec is kidnapped by Lord Horn, St. Vier must take drastic action. Kushner's authorial voice may be somewhat smug and self-conscious but that suits her subject. Her novel is intelligent, humorous and dramatic, with a fine, malicious feeling for the operation of gossip in a closed society.
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
“[Kushner] draws you through the story with such lucid, powerful writing that you come to trust her completely--and she doesn’t let you down...Watch this woman--she’s going to be one of the great ones.”
--Orson Scott Card
"There is an element of high romance to Kushner’s work, but it is honed to a bleeding edge by a deep appreciation of what motivates men and women. These are fantasies for adults, with the pang of real love and loss in them, sometimes surprisingly violent, sometimes breathtakingly tender, and sometimes very passionate indeed." --Realms of Fantasy --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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The prose, though, is drop-dead gorgeous, and the plot is fascinating, built around the nobility's tradition of hiring killers (swordsmen) to decide questions of honor and power. If kept within the rules, such things are legitimate. The swordsman will "challenge" the noble's enemy, always another noble. That noble then calls one of his own swordsman to take up the challenge, and the swordsmen duel, either to first blood, or to death. If the swordsman manages to challenge a noble where he can't call on his own swordsmen, then the noble himself must duel or lose his honor, providing a convenient and legal means of assassination.
These games involve our heroes: Richard, the emotionally frozen, calm, pleasant killer, the best swordsman of them all, and Alec, his suicidal, bloodthirsty beloved. Richard must watch Alec like a hawk, as he never knows when Alec might try to cut himself, overdose on drugs, or toss himself into a fireplace. Alec's nightly pastime is to annoy someone into attacking him, as his considerate lover will then step in and kill the annoyance for him. Watching Richard kill makes Alec horny, and that, of course, makes Richard happy. It's the perfect relationship, built around death, bloodshed, self destruction, excellent sex, and what seems like genuine affection. That Kushner also makes this relationship romantic and sweet, and fits it perfectly into the complex plotting of the nobility make this a truly unique novel.
But this isn't London. Instead, it is never named, the capital city of an equally unnamed parliamentary monarchy, and one in which duels over perceived insults are perfectly legal amongst the upper class who live on The Hill, yet actually fought only by lower class swordsmen who serve (and sometimes die) as proxies for their wealthy employers, being paid to duel to defend some wealthy man's affronted sense of honor. These swordsmen are in turn the very crème of society in Riverside, the city's poorest and most crime-ridden slum.
Our protagonists are Alec, a poverty-stricken student who has dropped out of the university and ended up in Riverside, where he is intimately involved with the most brilliant and ruthless swordsman of the era, Richard St.Vier. When wealthy and dissolute Lord Horn has Alec kidnapped and beaten in order to force Master of the Sword St. Vier to fight a duel for him, wheels are set in motion that will destroy lives and shake up the highest echelons of society.
I cannot really say more without giving away too much. The only drawback this book will have for some readers is the open way it deals with the protagonists' homosexuality. The fantasy world of the unnamed city is one in which homosexual relationships are as "normal" as dueling; to read this book with any enjoyment that must be accepted. Our moral norms are not theirs, which is part of what makes this a fantasy and not an historical romance.
Indeed, if it were not for the quality of the writing, discomfort with the protagonist's homosexual relationship, and particularly with its power imbalance, would have made me uncomfortable. Kushner's writing, however, is good enough that I was not merely sucked into the story and world for the 363 pages of the book, I immediately purchased the second Riverside novel. 'The Privilege of the Sword'*, which I liked even better (after which I bought book three, and...).
With the single caveat regarding the characters' sexuality, Highly Recommended.
*With even more buckling of swash!
The conversations may seem forced at first, but they are actually quite natural (especially for the fantasy setting.) The main characters have such a wit about them that even the driest of humor is able to elicit a laugh!
Most of the characters are worth adoration, and the story is both deep and suspenseful.
I recommend it for anyone who likes fantasy, even if there is no magic involved.
And yes there are slight mentions of homosexuality, but even my husband does not mind due to the fact that the writing is so absolutely enthralling!
The love affairs, the betrayal, the violence, and the short stories at the end which pull at your heart-strings makes this one of the best books I have ever read in my entire life!