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Swordspoint Paperback – 2003
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The classic forerunner to The Fall of the Kings now with three bonus stories Hailed by critics as a bravura performance Locus and witty sharp eyed and full of interesting people Newsday this classic melodrama of manners filled with remarkable plot twists and unexpected humor takes fantasy to an unprecedented level of elegant writing and scintillating wit Award winning author Ellen Kushner has created a world of unforgettable characters whose political ambitions passionate love affairs and age old rivalries collide with deadly results Swordspoint On the treacherous streets of Riverside a man lives and dies by the sword Even the nobles on the Hill turn to duels to settle their disputes Within this elite dangerous world Richard St Vier is the undisputed master as skilled as he is ruthless until a death by the sword is met with outrage instead of awe and the city discovers that the line between hero and villain can be altered in the blink of an eye
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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.
Swordspoint has a deft hand in its treatment of both class and sexuality. The story moves repeatedly from high to low, up to the nobleman's Hill and back down to Riverside. The realities and limitations of life in both cases are clearly drawn, and as the book goes on Kushner slowly reveals the deeply symbiotic relationship between the two classes. Richard St. Vier is the embodiment of this: a poor man living a poor man's life who plays a vital role in the nobles' politicking. Richard's role manifests again in his relationship with his lover Alec, a clearly high bred man playing pauper who roams around Riverside starting fights Richard must finish for him. Sexuality is dealt with in a simple and wonderfully frank way; it's refreshing to read a book where non-hetero relationships are written about as easily and with as much normalcy as straight ones. Again, there's a classed element to this: the sexual liaisons up on the Hill are just another form of secretive political alliance, whereas everyone in Riverside knows everyone else's business and no one particularly cares much.
The writing itself flows like wine. Kushner has a smooth, rarefied voice. She is a master of imagery, knowing exactly which details to include to make a picture crystal clear. All of her writing is seamless, and it all works even when, by rights, it shouldn't. A case in point is Kushner's tendency to head-hop, jumping from one POV character to another with no warning within the same scene. Usually this irks the living shit out of me. Usually I find it jarring and it rips me out of the narrative. For some reason (and I don't know why the particular alchemy of her writing makes this work) it was no problem at all for me in Swordspoint . There's a kind of force to Kushner's writing, and a kind of tricky truth, that keeps the book from being the overwritten confusing mess it could have been in another writer's hands. My hands, for instance, could not have produced something in this style that was remotely coherent or pleasant to read.
Swordspoint is extremely good, but it's not perfect. While the book passes the Bechdel test it's still very much a masculine book. The honor at play is masculine honor--even when manipulated by the beautiful and calculating Duchess Tremontaine it's masculine honor at stake. We see hints of feminine agency in Riverside, but the book doesn't dwell on them. This is a masculine book, and the queer elements at play here are masculine queer experiences. We see many men pursuing and loving and getting rebuffed by other men, and presumably that sexual openness extends to lesbian relationships, too, but we see exactly none of that in this book.
The prodigious plot of the book could have been tighter. Specifically, the thread of Michael Godwin feels very much unresolved by the end of the novel. His prominence in the story and the ambiguous place he is left when we last encounter him makes him feel like a more important character than he turns out to be. It feels, a bit, like Kushner loved the character and wanted him in the book, but really his story only crosses the main narrative arc in one or two places. He's not actually vital to the narrative. It may be that he plays a bigger part in the subsequent books in the series, I don't know, but in this book his subplot is strangely disconnected and unresolved.