Ellen Kushner’s second-world fantasy Swordspoint is one of those books I wish I’d picked up a while back, and for some reason never did. It’s a novel which bursts with the kind of elements I love in historical fantasy the most: courtly intrigue, superlative world building, queer characters and swords. Lots of swords. Don’t ask me why – there’s probably something very Freudian behind it which I’d rather not think about.
Anyway, set in an unnamed city which seems part restoration London, part Quattrocento Florence, disputes are settled at swords point; the nobility often hiring professional swordsmen to fight on their behalf in matters of honour. Enter Richard St Vier who is the best of them all – a man with a murky past who is skilled enough to be choosy when it comes to his patrons. And his lover, Alec – a man with an even murkier past, who tends to bring out the psychopath in Richard, egging him on to yet bloodier deeds.
Richard becomes embroiled in the machinations of the nobility who live on ‘the Hill’ – the smart side of town, and finds his own reputation and ultimately his life jeopardised as a result. And while I’ve read other reviews referring to this story as a ‘fantasy of manners’, with an emphasis on capturing atmosphere and character, I found myself gripped by the plot, as Richard becomes an unwitting pawn on an intricate playing board.
The one thing that niggled was the representation of female characters who were, for the most part, scheming aristocrats a la Dangerous Liaisons, happy whores or eventually docile wives. I could have done with a woman whose role went beyond fairly obvious stereotypes. I also felt there were a few subplots that would have been worth a bit more development. Richard didn’t seem particularly haunted by one of the more shocking events from his past; and Alec’s foray into astronomy was little more than a passing allusion. However, there was so much else going on here that it was hard to keep track of those lesser plot lines.
The novel is beautifully written in clear, precise prose and with an attention to detail that leaves you in no doubt, as a reader, of how Kushner wants you to feel – from the dangerous alleyways of Riverside, to the refined gardens and palaces of the Hill. It’s a book which very much serves as an antidote to fantasy conventions of good versus evil, or tradition versus modernity. Really worth a read.