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Swordspoint: A Novel Hardcover – November, 1987
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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.
“[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 Mass Market Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.