Review: Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner


“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. And it therefore follows that evil lurks behind each broken window, scheming malice and enchantment; while behind the latched shutters the good are sleeping their just sleeps at this early hour in Riverside. Soon they will arise to go about their business; and one, maybe, will be as lovely as the day, armed, as are the good, for a predestined triumph…”

So opens Swordspoint, subtitled A Melodrama of Manners, the first novel set in the fictional world containing the City with its neighborhood Riverside, long ago abandoned by the nobility and now the home of the city’s more disreputable citizens—such as swordsmen.

In this world, swordsmen fight the battles of the noblemen, for whom it is considered distasteful to engage in fencing themselves. Swordsmen occupy a precarious position, charged with the responsibility of defending a noble’s honor in a duel but seen as possessing no honor themselves.

Richard St. Vier is one such swordsman, famed for his superior skills with a blade, his deadliness, and his choosiness when it comes to the jobs he’ll accept. Richard may fight the personal and political battles of the nobility, but as a Riversider he has no interest in their affairs. That is, until a group of nobles’ machinations go too far and threaten Richard’s autonomy and that of his lover Alec, a bad-tempered, sarcastic, and semi-suicidal former student of the University. The line between a swordsman and criminal is fine indeed, as Richard St. Vier demonstrates in this short, intimate novel that is both a tale of manners, a passionate romance, and a duel fought with a myriad of weapons that are sharp, precise, and deadly.

To start off with, Ellen Kushner’s writing is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. The above passage alone—it’s as elegant and pointed as the novel’s title, and the story itself. Be they rich or poor, noble or common, Kushner describes all characters with the same wit and playfulness. What binds all these characters together, regardless of their background, is the question of honor, or lack thereof.

This is where the conflict comes into play, and it is beautiful. Swordsmen are not believed to have honor. They are paid money to do jobs in which they defend the honor of nobles. Written contracts are the only thing separating a swordsman from being out-and-out criminal, and contracts are used both to guarantee a swordsman’s cooperation and absolve them of their guilt in the case of foul play.

Richard St. Vier is a wild card because he dares to claim he has honor, which he uses to ensure his freedom. Not just any old swordsman-for-hire, he is notorious for refusing to use written contracts for his jobs; either he decides to accept a noble’s offer or he doesn’t. Because he dares to have honor, he also dares to defend it. Anyone in Riverside who insults his lover Alec ends up dead on the end of his blade, despite the fact that Alec is almost always the one picking the fights. Any noble who dares to blackmail Richard into doing a job pays a fearful price. Nobles are born with their honor; a swordsman forges his own—in doing so he declares his right to personhood and to freedom. Two things he will fight dearly to protect.

Regarding characters, I loved Richard’s carefully-maintained arrogance, Alec’s sarcasm and bitterness, and their double-edged-sword of a relationship. It’s a fascinating combination of selfish and selfless need as each seeks what they want from the other while somehow managing to buoy the other in unexpected ways.

The nobles’ various political shenanigans were fascinating, as were the majority of the main players (the exception being Michael Godwin, whom I could have done without in general except for the part where he’s necessary for the plot.) Above all, I loved the Duchess Tremontaine. Honestly I have a hard time believing she wasn’t written to be loved and beloved of all who read her—carefree and witty and dismissive of politics on the outside, clever and crafty and oh-so-precisely manipulative on the inside. She’s fantastic.

From a larger perspective, I love the way Kushner created and wrote Swordspoint as a standalone novel that acknowledges its standalone nature within the narrative itself. The story we get gives tantalizing glimpses into multiple avenues that could be explored in further sequels and prequels. But the future or the past is not this novel’s concern—Swordspoint tells a tale that just so happens to take place in its delineated chronological parameters, with its artificially chosen beginning and ending.

This construction gives this world and the city of Riverside the feeling of an expanded universe, one that encourages the telling of stories that don’t necessarily form linear narratives but add to the web of characters and families and relationships and histories encompassing this world. Which, of course, ties in very well with the fact that the next two novels set in this universe are collaborative efforts on the part of Kushner and Delia Sherman, and there’s currently an ongoing prequel story being released in installments over at Serial Box. All of which I’m looking forward to diving into.

It was especially interesting to read Swordspoint soon after finishing V.E. Schwab’s A Gathering of Shadows, as the two books share some similarities regarding the voices of their male characters, the portrayal of their angst, and world-building when it comes to cities. But unlike the linear narratives and storytelling of A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows, Swordspoint’s narrative is internally aware of the story it’s telling, and that lends the novel an open-ended quality that encourages the reader to fill in the blanks themselves and become a participant in creating this world of the City and Riverside and the families and characters that inhabit it.

All of this review is a long-winded of saying I very much enjoyed reading Swordspoint. It scratched my itch for a story with engaging, empathetic characters, a well-written plot, intriguing world-building, and meta-commentary about the nature of storytelling and narratives. I hope to be back very soon with the second novel written in this universe, The Fall of Kings.

1 thought on “Review: Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

  1. Pingback: My Favorite Reads of 2016 | Alive and Narrating

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