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Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

Swordspoint (1987)

by Ellen Kushner (Author)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Riverside (1)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,878623,668 (3.99)113
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“Pico review” written for the SF fanzine OtherRealms (SF review zine by Chuq Von Rospach, Dec. 1989): I'd call this an alternate universe "Dangerous Liaisons". I bought this book on the recommandation of the owner of the SF specialty book store I frequent. I heard that the author is a fan-writer-turned-pro and this novel started as fan fiction. While fun to read and very well written, there is really no "fantasy" in this book. It takes place at an unspecified time in a fictional society, but so does a lot of mainstream fiction, that alone doesn't make it fantasy. Like Dangerous Liaisons, the plot of Swordspoint follows political and sexual maneuverings frequently settled by duels. Murder is legal, as long as a highly placed noble will stand up in court for the swordsman. The main characters are a professional swordsman at the height of his career (a classy sort of assassin-for-hire), and his current lover, a student who fled the university and who seems much too well bred for this part of town. ( )
  SF_fan_mae | Jan 15, 2016 |
A tale of scheming and manners and swordplay set in an unnamed city that features a society that encompasses a sort of Elizabethan underworld and a Regency upper class, where the aristocracy answer insults, offences and challenges by hiring swordsman to do their fighting for them. The best swordsman is Richard de Vier, who hangs around an insalubrious part of the town where the City Watch fear to tread with his lover, an ex-scholar with an aristocratic accent, a caustic tongue and an apparent death-wish. After an unusually bloody fight at a winter party, events and plots are set in motion that will make life very uncomfortable for de Vier indeed.

This is a fundamentally romantic tale of manners and conspiracies, a drama of social and political maneuvering. Despite being central to the plot and part of the core concept, the sword fights themselves are not treated as thrilling climactic conflicts. The focus is very much on the personal and the political. If CJ Cherryh wrote a Regency novel, it might be a bit like this.

Interestingly, the homosexuality and bisexuality of the main characters came as a shock to me. Not because of the sexuality itself, but because it was presented without fanfare or elaboration, as if completely normal, and I can't remember when or whether I've read a genre novel that did that, and I wonder if that speaks to my conservatism in reading choices or the genre's conservatism in general. Anyway, it's all quite matter-of-fact, as is much of the worldbuilding, which is a masterclass in telling you as little as the narrative can get away with and still evoke a fantasy setting, eschewing infodumps and lessons in history and geography and whatever to avoid bogging the story down.

It took a while for the story to really grab me, but in the end it did, and the three stories at the end were pretty good, too. ( )
  Nigel_Quinlan | Oct 21, 2015 |
I sought out Swordspoint as an example of well-written fiction without magic, and it is that. Kushner creates an exquisitely drawn world that could be Europe, but clearly isn't. The names are familiar, English or French primarily, but the setting is just "the city" and when other lands are named, those names are clearly fictional. And there is no magic, but there are swords.
Kushner describes this work as a "melodrama of manners," and from other reviews here I see that this is a sub-genre. To me, the label undersells this book. The culture depicted here is highly mannered, to be sure, but the story is far more interesting than what that suggests. If it is melodramatic, it is only so in the most thoroughly entertaining sense of the word.
Some readers might find it a bit slow to unfold, but they should stick with it, because it gathers momentum. There is a luxuriousness to the description that sometimes requires some time to savor, but ultimately this story moves. I admit that I was initially taken more with the gorgeous writing than with the characters, but that soon changed because the characters are so very real and their conflicts so compelling. Before long, I couldn't put the book down.
If I have a complaint it is that I sometimes found the character's interactions and dialog subtle to the point of obscurity. Others may be quicker than I, however, and I forgave Kushner page by page because the writing was so beautiful and I was so enthralled. In the end, everything was as clear as it needed to be. ( )
1 vote Carol_W | Apr 7, 2015 |
Ellen Kushner and I seem to like a lot of the same things: swashbuckling, intrigue, sharp drawing room conversation, m/m romance.

The basic ingredients of Swordspoint are pleasing but the final product is not. It should have been a rich, fluffy cake; instead it turns out to be an oozing mess.

Reviewers have singled the book out as unique because it is set in a fantasy world, an alternate reality, without magic, but I have read other books that fit in that category (such as Lloyd Alexander's Westmark trilogy, or Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia books) and have far superior world-building. In the afterword to my edition, Kushner writes that the city where the novel is set is "made up of my favorite bits and pieces of every other city I'd walked in or read about: Shakespeare's London, Georgette Heyer's Paris, Damon Runyon's New York, for starters." Obviously there is nothing wrong with pulling aspects of various eras to create one's imaginary world—that's the very appeal of steampunk—but here the parts do not make a convincing whole. The parts are still too visible. I always knew when I was in a Heyer scene, and when I was in a Shakespeare scene.

To make matters worse, Richard St Vier, the presumed hero of the piece, has no driving motivation until halfway through the novel. He's merely a swordsman, a duelist, carrying out orders, and all he wants to do is to keep things as they are, which would be fine if something was threatening his equilibrium, but it isn't, not until 140 pages into the novel. I was far more intrigued by the character who seems (at first) our secondary protagonist, Lord Michael Godwin. Like him or not, he is always wanting and working towards something, whether it be the favors of Diane, the Duchess Tremontaine, or the knowledge of swordfighting. If the novel had been primarily about him and detailed his romantic exploits in lurid detail, I probably would have enjoyed it a great deal more.

It seems that for most, one's opinion of the novel seems to rest on one's opinion of Alec, Richard's destructive and self-destructive lover, so it's not surprising that I couldn't stand him. If he was merely suicidal, I could understand that, but he is bloodthirsty in a way that neither the swordsmen nor the nobles who employ him are, and one never really understands why. He does show some mettle near the end of the book, as does the Duchess, but I wouldn't trust either of them further than I could throw them, and I think Richard and Michael respectively would be much better without them.

This is one of those books where at first glance everyone appears to be bisexual, but upon further examination one finds that only the young, attractive men are. The women all seem straight, presumably because lady-on-lady isn't Kushner's thing, and of course the old, villainous lecher Lord Horn is gay, an unfortunate stereotype reproduced without any shades of gray.

Most shockingly, given all the romantic intrigue, it seems that the denizens of Riverside and the aristocrats on The Hill alike are all lacking genitalia, for all of the sex scenes—even one extended night of passion between Richard and Alec—are described only from the waist up. They're frightfully boring and not in the least sensual. Even a polite fade to black would be preferable to this approach; at least then one's imagination can run wild. If you can't write hot sex don't write it at all, dammit.

The front of my edition features words of praise from such luminaries as Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin, Peter S. Beagle, and Guy Gavriel Kay, and whenever a discussion of queer fantasy novels comes up Swordspoint always seems to be among the first mentioned, but I think it's pretty much a wash, and will not be reading any of the companion novels. ( )
  ncgraham | Feb 9, 2015 |
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Kushner, EllenAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Canty, ThomasCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fass, RobertNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Graham, DionNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jones, SimonNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kellgren, KatherineNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kushner, EllenNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Reyes, Manuel de losTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sullivan, NickNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Man desires that which is Good.
"We all have flaws," he said, "and mine is being wicked."
-James Thurber, The Thirteen Clocks
In the end...everything will be found to be true of everybody.
-Lawrence Durrell, Balthazar
For the Other One
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Snow was falling on Riverside, great white feather-puffs that veiled the cracks in the façades of its ruined houses; slowly softening the harsh contours of jagged roof and fallen beam.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0553585495, Mass Market Paperback)

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.


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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:09 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

In this collection which includes a novel and three short stories, the great swordsman Richard St. Vier is forced to become involved in a plot to gain control of a nameless city where elegance and decadence coexist.

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