Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner


The Plot

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. ”

My Thoughts

This one is a bit special for me, as it turns out I’ve been a fan of Ellen Kushner for far longer than I realized. Thinking to myself “this name sounds awfully familiar” when Ellen tweeted me about Swordspoint, I looked her up only to find that I’ve been reading her Choose Your Own Adventure novels since I was about 8 years old – crikey! Turns out that those very CYOA novels were written in order to pay the rent when she was writing Swordspoint, and here, almost 30 years later, I’ve found my way back to her work. ❤

And Swordspoint is very much my cup of tea! It’s a witty, irony-laden good time that reads as if Dangerous Liaisons had been written by Jane Austen. I love Fantasy of Manners as a subgenre, and as far as I know, this is one of the earliest examples (I understand Kushner coined the term, even). There are debonair sword fighters, ruthless aristocrats and subterfuge galore. All this set in a fictional society known as Riverside, which is not unlike 18th Century England. I absolutely adore political intrigue so for me this scratched a lot of the right itches, however it’s low on action and it’s an extremely feminine novel so this isn’t going to work for everyone. If you’re looking for Grimdark, turn on your heel and look elsewhere. Those who aren’t fans of the classics might find the pacing and the lack of fantasy elements difficult to get to grips with. Indeed, it’s an outside-the-box sort of fantasy novel in that there is no magic, no fantastic creatures – very little that people have come to expect from this genre. However, the fictional setting and culture kept me gripped, along with some beautifully evocative prose. I found myself reminded of Jane Austen’s own description of Pride & Prejudice: “light and bright and sparkling”.

I listened to the audiobook for much of the novel and I would highly recommend going this route – Kushner herself provides the narration, with a voice cast, music, and special effects. It’s absolutely sublime, for me everything clicked wonderfully and added to the atmosphere without being intrusive, though your mileage may vary as I have spoken to at least one person who found it distracting. The voice actors are excellent and the amusement in Kushner’s voice sets the tone perfectly.

The plot, while not action packed (though there are some excellent swordfights), provides plenty of twists due to the cunning schemes of its characters, leading to a climactic courtroom scene that put me in mind of The Merchant of Venice with its sheer cleverness. There’s romance, a femme fatale for the ages, and a fluid and delicious approach to sexuality that is far ahead of its time given that the novel was published in ’87. It is a book that will no doubt be divisive for some, but for me it was a joy. I’m thrilled to have been reunited with this author, and I’ll be picking up the rest of this series for sure.

Score: 8.8/10

Bingo Squares 2018

  • Reviewed on r/Fantasy
  • Published Before You Were Born (if born after 1987)
  • One Word Title
  • LGBTQ+

The Cocktail


Riverside Sipping Chocolate

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