REVIEW: Swordspoint – Ellen Kushner

2003 Bantam books paperback cover

2003 Bantam books paperback cover

(Bantam Books 2003, novel originally published 1987)

I don’t recall where I first read about Swordspoint, but it was certainly on Redhead’s blog where I read about the sequel, The Privilege of the Sword. Although for her the sequel didn’t live up to the awesomeness of the first novel, her review really made me want to read it. However, The Privilege of the Sword wasn’t available, and Swordspoint was, so I read that instead.

It’s set in an unnamed city, the nobles living on the Hill, the commoners in Riverside, in a vaguely eighteenth century-ish sort of setting. Quarrels among nobles are settled by duelling, and it’s seen as usual that one should hire a swordsman to defend one’s honour – also swordsmen are hired to provide entertainment, such as the one from which Richard St Vier is leaving at the start of the novel. St Vier is the best swordsman in the city, but apart from his reputation is something of an enigma. He lives in Riverside, sharing his rooms with young scholar Alec, also his lover, who is prickly, sarcastic, and is seemingly impelled to annoy people – safe in the knowledge that Richard will defend him. Also major characters are the noble Duchess of Tremontaine, a schemer par excellence, the various members of the council, and the main antagonist, Lord Ferris, as well as several others in Riverside, Ginnie Vandall, Marie, and Katherine, a servant in Lord Ferris’ employ and also his mistress, who has a connection with Richard.

I’m not sure one can actually summarise the plot, since there is a lot going on – plot and counter-plot, as it were – but the main strand is an attempt to hire Richard to kill Basil Halliday, Crescent Chancellor and head of the Council, and what happens when Richard kills someone entirely different (but not having been hired to do so).

I liked the novel, but I might be alone in preferring Richard to Alec, whose self-destructiveness is a little wearing. At first there is equal mystery about them both, though by the end Alec’s real identity is revealed, although the reasons for his choices aren’t. The plotting is a little confusing at first, being told from the points of view of several different characters, and we see into the heads of protagonists and antagonists alike, though not wholly. Although Kushner’s setting has an acceptance of bi- and homosexuality, women are firmly set in a patriarchal society where their lives are essentially controlled by men. Even Diane of Tremontaine, who is intelligent and ruthless and capable, essentially has to hide her capability from others – Lord Ferris, for example, is one of the few who know her scheming qualities, but he feels himself superior to her – and even she has power to carry out her schemes only through being Duchess in her own right. Ginnie Vandall has some degree of agency, but she has this only through her relationship with swordsman, Hugo Seville. Kushner addresses this to a certain extent in the 1991 short story, The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death, included this volume, where a girl, fleeing from an unwelcome marriage, seeks a different kind of life, and whom Richard rejects as a pupil. And this is why The Privilege of the Sword still appeals to me so much.

I enjoyed Swordspoint a lot, but I think was left ultimately unsatisfied by it – though that might be more my fault than Kushner’s. It’s subtitled ‘A Melodrama of Manners’ which suits the tale: I was left wanting to know more – about Richard in particular – but also about the setting. Kushner’s world-building is consistent and interesting, not particularly deep, but with sufficient hints about countries and places outside the city to make the setting feel real but not over-detailed.

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6 Responses to REVIEW: Swordspoint – Ellen Kushner

  1. A new series for me, thanks Ela – what would you say is the target readership though?

    • Ela says:

      I’m not sure that it’s a series as such, though there’s another book which Kushner wrote with Delia Sherman – THE FALL OF THE KINGS – which is set in the same world, I think, as well as PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD. Target audience – gosh, hard to say. Suspect it would appeal to those who like AU fantasy or historical fiction.

  2. Redhead says:

    Thanks for giving this one a try. it IS a melodrama of manners, and it did take me quite a while to get used to what exactly that meant. There is a little more world background in Privilege of the Sword, but not a ton. the stories are more about perceptions and character interaction than anything else. Even without the heavy worldbuiling, I still felt completely immersed.

    • Ela says:

      Some writers can do light world-building really well – they don’t go into vast amounts of detail, but there’s enough to stimulate one’s imagination for the bits they don’t tell you about. Robin McKinley does this really well, I think. Kushner’s was pretty good – one did get a real sense that the Hill and Riverside could be real places. But the way women were treated by the society Kushner created did grate a little on me.

  3. Irina says:

    You are not alone in preferring Richard to Alec. I have no patience with whiny pretty-boys who think they can,get away with everything by fluttering their eyelashes. (Sorry, got carried away there.)
    I can’t say anything really constructive right now because it’s long overdue for a reread. So many books…

    • Ela says:

      Ha ha ha, yes, absolutely! I think that was part of what I didn’t like about Alec, as well as the way he felt so safe under Richard’s protection that he felt he could just insult anybody he liked. And the fact that he wasn’t honest with Richard until the very end, either.

      I know what you mean about the re-reading though – there are far too many books out there and only a finite amount of time available!

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