My feelings about this book are divided. I like the overall setup - old city, the once-fashionable part now taken over by the criminal underclass while the fashionable people move up the hill, official swordsmen who fight the nobles' duels and have reputations that swing from dashing hero to thug (reminds me of pirates, a bit). There's political scheming, a mysterious guy with a noble accent who says he used to be a scholar, won't say anything else, and is now living with the number one swordsman. There was a very cool scene where some characters went to a Shakespeare-style play. And there's some lovely imagery, like the shady neighborhood covered in snow and looking like a fairy-tale village while somewhere a drop of blood falls on snow.
On the other hand, it took me a really long time to get into the book. I didn't care about most of the political scheming, because all that seemed to be at stake were the reputations of some cold, smug, overdressed nobles or the swordsman and his bloodthirsty lover. It's not that I expect every character to be nice, but when they ALL care about little but their power and ability to treat people like chess pieces, I don't care if their feelings get hurt when a duchess doesn't flirt back. The swordsman and scholar-guy did care about each other, but partly because they were dangerous and a "challenge" to each other, and after a while the unrelenting nature of 99% of all human interaction in the book being about power and status and revenge got tiring. It picked up for me when things finally got personal - the scholar-guy got abducted, the swordsman cared, a noble's murder threatened to upset the balance of power in the city - but it was a little late for me to really care what happened to them all.
Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner, fantasy of manners, is a most entertaining read. The hero is Richard St. Vier who falls in love with Alec, the scholar, who is in reality Lord David Alexander Tielman Campion. St. Vier is an accomplished swordsman with a reputation for discreet murders ordered by nobles who wish to satisfy their honor for various reasons. St. Vier is nothing but thorough and discreet, protecting the reputation of the nobles who hire his services. However, it is inappropriate for him to satisfy his own honor because he heritage is unknown at best. When Alec is kidnapped, St. Vier satisfies his own honor to protect Alec who disappears of his own volition. St. Vier is arrested for the murder of the noble who kidnapped Alec and is put on trial. The minor characters are almost as interesting as St. Vier and Alec, all of who play a role in the trial. Will St. Vier's life be spared? Read this charming adult fairy tale and see for yourself.
This was a hard book for me to read. It is undeniably brilliantly written, with characters that go down and down and a world that extends well beyond the edge of the page. It is true, there is no magic as so many people insist on having in their fantasy worlds, but the world we get glimpses of is certainly not this one, so there is nowhere else to market it but the fantasy shelves. That depth and realism is extremely rare, and definitely to be commended: every single character whose viewpoint we see (and the viewpoint shifts frequently and with no formatting flourishes like line or chapter breaks) is damaged, driven by wants and needs that we get mere glimpses of. It is really an incredible feat for an author to accomplish: every time the viewpoint shifts the reader can see how the person whose actions we are following is acting in the way he or she thinks is right or justified. Knowing what we know of what else is going on, we can see how the person is short-sighted, or is playing into someone else's hands, or is simply an idiot; but every single person has his or her reasons and, given his or her state of knowledge and desired goals, is justified.
This, unfortunately, is what made the book so extremely hard to read. Because it takes place among an aristocracy that do nothing but play politics with their own and other peoples' lives, the only viewpoint that was restful, the only person whose goals and needs were simple and straightforward, the only person who acted consistently with what we normally consider honor in a fantasy novel, was the swordsman Richard St. Vier. His was the most common viewpoint, as it is his story being told, but it was not often enough to prevent the novel from feeling like a tragedy to me, rather than the comedy I was led to believe it was. This was partly aided by the fact that something I read online about it gave away what I think was actually supposed to be a twist in the middle of the story, but I think even without that spoiler I would still have been left feeling unsettled by this novel. It clashes with my view of the world. I made my philosophical choice years ago, and I chose to believe that the world is ultimately a decent place, where people occasionally have misunderstandings, but these misunderstandings can be ironed out if we give honest communication and empathy a try. I do not want to live in a world like the one Kushner so lovingly detailed, where every man is an island to himself and the only choice is who you want to be used by and how. There is too much power in this novel and not enough love, and even the love that is in it is based in mutual conquest rather than in mutual surrender. It is an dark novel, an ugly one, but one that will undoubtedly stay with me a long time.
I really try to make an effort to read related titles in order, but I accidentally read The Fall of The Kings, which was billed as a sequel to Swordspoint, first. It was good enough that I went out of my way to get ahold of Swordspoint - and now I've read it!
However, I wouldn't really call one a "sequel" to the other. The books take place in the same city, 60 years apart, and don't include any of the same main characters. Both are fully stand-alone works.
The setting is a city which strikes me as a mix of 15th or 16th century Italy and London, a complex, vibrant, decadent place which has recently moved from monarchy to bureaucracy, but still filled with wealthy nobles - who avoid the dangerous underworld of the Riverside neighborhood like the plague.
However, the nobles are certainly not above hiring the swordsmen of Riverside to fight their duels for them - and our protagonist, Richard St. Vier, is the best of these swordsmen. In this position, he is poised to be swept into a dizzying melange of intrigue, fueled by both sex and politics. The swordsman prides himself on maintaining a professional distance and only accepting those deadly commissions that he chooses - but when St. Vier's handsome, mysterious, but self-destructive lover, Alec, is kidnapped by a lord as blackmail in order to force St. Vier to commit an assassination, events cascade to a head, slipping past the accepted boundaries....
Kushner creates a rich tapestry in this work, sometimes complicating to the point of confusion, as the reader keeps track of who's plotting against who... The love she has for her characters is obvious (even if none of them are terribly likable individuals...), and each is vividly detailed.
Overall, I would say this book is better than The Fall of the Kings. Quite excellent, as a matter of fact!
Good read, interesting plot, interesting societal construct. Gay and bisexual characters abound, which I like because, after all, if one can create worlds with magic and wizards and such, surely gay people can be there too?
But this world has politics and intrigue as its center point. Romance too, though no graphic sex so it's safe for kids. Well, safe for teens anyway.
On another note, this has precursor flavors of later work by Lynn Flewelling, Fiona Patton, and Storm Constantine. I recommend it.
I really disliked this book. I originally grabbed because it was on a list of favorite fantasy books with queer characters, which I generally regard as a plus, but that is nearly the only thing this book has in its favor.
The writing is clear but predictable, the pacing is good. The societal structure doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it's perfectly adequate for a sword fantasy. Plenty of fun and gratuitous sex, some clever lines and entertaining supporting characters.
However, I heartily disliked both of the heroes and particularly their relationship with each other. One of them was a possessive, violent jerk who delighted in killing people to establish his "claim" on his boyfriend, and the other was a passive-aggressive bloodthirsty mess who was somehow traumatized by the abject horror of being rich and powerful. The main dynamic of their relationship (aside from some pretty hot sex) was the latter taunting random other people until they were justifiably angry, then backing out so the former could kill them. I don't have a problem with mercenaries or violence, but when the entire book centers around one character killing innocent (and guilty but basically harmless) people to prove his love to his rich boyfriend - well, that's evil. And not much fun.
This was a super fun read. While I was confused quite a bit, it was more the intrigued kind than the annoyed. The twists were wonderful and a good middle between "way out" and "expected." It was quite funny and the characters were wonderfully characterized. I wish there weren't quite so many POVs but the transitioning between them within scenes was smooth and kind of nice in an omniscient but not in that boring 19th century omniscient way. I hope that makes sense. There wasn't much to upset me in this book. Some browner characters would have been lovely but I'm willing to let my opinion stay very high because there was so much else that was good.
I read this novel for the 2010 fantasy challenge and felt that it was a most entertaining read. The hero is Richard St. Vier who falls in love with Alec, the scholar, who is in reality Lord David Alexander Tielman Campion. St. Vier is an accomplished swordsman with a reputation for discreet murders ordered by nobles who wish to satisfy their honor for various reasons. St. Vier is nothing but thorough and discreet, protecting the reputation of the nobles who hire his services. However, it is inappropriate for him to satisfy his own honor because his own heritage is unknown at best. When Alec is kidnapped, St. Vier satisfies his own honor to protect Alec who disappears of his own volition. St. Vier is arrested for the murder of the noble who kidnapped Alec and is put on trial. The minor characters are almost as interesting as St. Vier and Alec, all of who play a role in the trial. Will St. Vier's life be spared? Read this charming adult fairy tale and see for yourself.
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...