A Melodrama of Manners
Just in case you hadn’t picked up on it during the posts on rapiers, Cyrano de Bergerac, Scaramouche and Captain Alatriste, I have something of a weakness for swordsmen. More to the point, I admire a man who has the sprezzatura to casually win a duel while making witty comments at the same time, and so this was my kind of book.
Like The Marlowe Papers, this was an automated recommendation from Amazon: an impressively astute one, under the circumstances. I had vaguely heard of Ellen Kushner via the admirable Limyaeel’s rants, but I certainly didn’t know very much about her.
It’s important to emphasise that this is not what most people will think of as a fantasy novel, despite it being marketed in that genre. There are no dragons, no magics and no supernatural powers. The action takes place in a time that is very much like the eighteenth century and the characters have names that suggest an Anglophone setting; but this isn’t any particular time or any particular place. In short, this is no more a fantasy novel than is Jill Paton Walsh’s superlative Knowledge of Angels. I make this point because I know there are people who shy away from the faintest hint of fantasy, but in all fairness those people probably wouldn’t enjoy a pseudo-historical swashbuckling novel either.
Kushner’s world, as I said, has an eighteenth-century aura: there are carriages and fencing schools and aristocrats in billowing silks and lace, who sit gossiping and concocting intrigues over cups of chocolate. These nobles amuse themselves with political plotting and liaisons with the handsome young men who are on their way up the political ladder, always eager to be helped up to the next rung. In the luxurious quarter on The Hill, you never quite forget that you’re in Choderlos de Laclos territory. At the opposite end of the scale is Riverside, a warren of streets which was once the noble quarter, before The Hill became fashionable, and which has become a seething warren of cheats, whores and swordsmen. It reminded me of a good-natured version of Caravaggio’s Naples.
I have to say I didn’t get much of a sense of the city beyond these two quarters and I often found myself wondering: where are the merchants; the middle classes? Where’s the world that’s squeezed between those at the top and those at the bottom? We occasionally see a tailor’s shop or bookshop but these seem to exist in a gulf between The Hill and Riverside. Of course, you could argue that only The Hill and Riverside are relevant, and in any case the story sets itself up as a fairy tale of sorts, so I shouldn’t have expected the level of circumstantial detail that you usually get in a historical novel.
I adored the opening, where one of the first images is a fairy-tale spot of blood on snow, ‘red as the single spot of claret on the lace cuff‘. It’s the perfect simile, completely in line with the preoccupations of Kushner’s elegant nobles. We then learn there has been a duel and that our hero ‘has just vaulted the garden wall and is running like mad into the darkness, while the darkness lasts‘. At this point I thought, ‘Oh good, I’m going to like this’. Then we learn the swordsman is running to avoid being caught – but not for the reason we might expect:
He could have stayed, if he’d wanted to. The swordfight had been very impressive, and the party guests had been well entertained… But if he stayed, the swordsman knew that he would be offered wine, and rich pastry, and asked boring questions about his technique, and difficult questions about who had arranged the fight. He ran on.
And at this point I laughed out loud with glee and thought, ‘Oh, I’m really going to like this’. This is a city where aristocrats are so languid that they no longer even fight duels themselves: animosities are resolved by proxy, by hired swordsmen who have become so crucial to the smooth functioning of society that they are almost a distinct class. The best of them are celebrities, feted by the wealthy and sought after both professionally and socially. And there is none more exceptional than Richard St Vier, whose victory in a duel against two men opens the book. He is so in demand that he can pick and choose his jobs – it’s well-known, for example, that he doesn’t ‘do’ weddings any more – and yet despite the legend that’s already growing up around his name, he lives very simply, in hired rooms in Riverside, with his lover Alec.
But, as the time for the election of the Crescent Chancellor comes closer, and the nobles start choosing sides and sizing up their opponents, Richard is about to find himself drawn into a particularly knotty intrigue – which may eventually force him to step outside the swordsman’s code and take a life on his own account.
I know that there is a lot of love out there for Swordspoint. It’s a modern classic in its field and my edition comes with an admiring quote from George R.R. Martin blazoned across the cover. If I’d stumbled across it when I was fifteen I’d have read it in two hours, then read it again and loved it for life. Now… well. As a light, humorous swashbuckler it’s certainly good fun and I grew very fond of Richard, who seemed remarkably well-balanced for a man whose job involves killing people on a regular basis. He was a very moderate, rounded character and I liked the fact that his background was hinted at, but never made explicit; it didn’t make him seem mysterious, just solid.
It’s a book that I will read again, partly because I’m not sure I was in the right mood for it at the moment and partly because some of the plotting is so terrifically byzantine that I need a second go to figure out exactly who is double-crossing whom. Plus, I prefer pseudo- or alternate-history novels to classic high fantasy and there aren’t many of them around: this is part of a rare breed of book and I want to savour it.
Having said all that, there were weaknesses. The book started very strongly, but the promise of the beautifully-described opening pages was never brought to fruition. There was slightly too much incidental conversation for my taste, some of which felt simply like an excuse for the author to watch her characters banter. And, although I felt that Richard was a strong and interesting character, I’m afraid that I didn’t feel the same about Alec and that, unfortunately, proved to be problematic in a novel that required me to have some sympathy for him. While I was fully convinced by Richard’s affection and concern for Alec (though I wondered at it), the reverse wasn’t true: although I was occasionally told that Alec cared for Richard, I never saw it. To my mind, Alec was lazy and petulant, with three modes of conversation: sneering, drawling or being languorous. I really couldn’t warm to him and spent much of the book thinking that he wouldn’t have been out of place as the Duke of Avon’s shallow younger brother. I assume that his identity is meant to be one of the enigmas of the story, but the essence – if not the detail – of the revelation is fairly obvious from very early on.
Another thing was that the threat of danger never felt real enough to make me really worry for the characters: even Riverside, for all its vaunted danger, seemed to be slightly neutered, in that there was honour among thieves and everyone, at root, had a heart of gold. I never had any doubt that the characters were going to come through unscathed and, because I wasn’t nervous about what might happen to them, I found it a little difficult to become really emotionally invested in the story. And what about all the questions that remained unanswered: like, for example, what happens to Michael Godwin? I think what frustrated me, considering the splendid opening, was that the book didn’t so much finish as tail off.
Three bonus stories are included in my edition: The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death, Red-Cloak and The Death of the Duke. I enjoyed the latter, which answered some of the questions I’d been left with and was written in the same style as the rest of the book. However, I’m afraid I thought the first two were very weak and I’m not sure it was necessary to include them.
But let’s look at it this way. If you’re looking for something fun and frothy, with conniving nobles, a bit of romance, some good swashbuckling and a dose of good humour, this will go down a treat. If the reviews are true, Kushner’s sequel to Swordspoint, The Fall of the Kings, is more richly written, with much more information about the city and the society she’s created, so I’m definitely going to be looking out for that. There’s also another sequel, The Privilege of the Sword, which might be rather fun (as finally a girl gets to have a go at the swashbuckling: hurrah!).
And let me reiterate, on closing: I really did enjoy this – I just, in the end, didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I thought I would.
8 thoughts on “Swordspoint (1987): Ellen Kushner”
I'm sure I've seen this in my Amazon recommendations too but didn't follow the link to see what it was about. I love swashbucklers, as you know, so obviously I need to take another look at this one! It does sound fun, even with the negative points you've mentioned.
I'm going through a bit of a swashbuckling phase at the moment 🙂 Yes, do let me know what you think if you go for it: I'm certainly very pleased to have bought it and I'm keen to buy the sequels and follow the story on. I'm not sure it's in print in the UK though – you might have to get an American edition as I did…