Thoughts on Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

Posted October 25, 2019 by Fictional Fox in Book Review / 0 Comments

Thoughts on Swordspoint by Ellen KushnerSwordspoint (Riverside, #1) by Ellen Kushner
Published by Spectra on December 18, 2007
Pages: 363
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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 a of awe, and the city discovers that the line between hero and villain can be altered in the blink of an eye . . .

In the highly stratified world of Kushner's nameless old city, the aristocrats living in fine mansions on the Hill settle their differences by sending to the thieves' den of Riverside for swordsmen who will fight to the death for a point of someone else's honor.

Young Lord Michael Godwin is so taken by these romantic figures that he studies the art himself until challenged by the best of them.

Master of the Sword, Richard St. Vier is picky in his contracts and precise in his killing but he nevertheless becomes embroiled in the nobility's political, social and sexual intrigues. When his lover Alec is kidnapped by Lord Horn, St. Vier must take drastic action.

When a book is amazing I find reviewing incredibly hard. I don’t ever feel satisfied with what I’ve written because I can’t come near to doing the book justice. Part of me just wants to just to say: ‘Trust me, read it.”

So I’m not going to call this a review, strictly speaking. I’ll never post it otherwise. Let’s call this some ‘thoughts on’ Swordspoint and the story it tells about Alec (a former student) and Richard (a reputable swordsman) who live together and get into trouble on the rough side of the city, known as Riverside.

This is one of those fabulous stories that makes you want to flip right back to the first page as soon as you finish it. The world and characters are sumptuous. Like Alec at the end of the novel turning up at Richard’s door with fish in hand as if nothing has changed, the lure of Riverside is hard to resist as a reader.

For me Swordspoint is the perfect book to pick up for a slice of escapism. I’ve read it a few times and it never fails to be engrossing. I don’t like to read it quickly, though. I like to savour it. Soaking up the character building is the best part of this reading experience.

The domestic moments that depart from the main plot are my favourites. Example: Alec and Richard’s cat. It all starts when Alec talks to Richard about being annoyed by some cats yowling on the roof.

Alec says:

“I think we should get a cat of our own. We could train it to fight. It could chase them away.”

His idea for how to source a cat is to:

“Save it’s life- pull a thorn out of its paw or something- and it would be forever grateful.”

A few chapters later there is suddenly ‘a small grey kitten’ in their room:

“The neighbourhood cat lady had foistered [it] on them in return for a gift of wood (‘Removing the poor thing from evil influences,’ Alec had said, accepting)”

And so the cat remains with them for the rest of the novel. The cat is referenced in scenes here and there, being petted while Alec reads or following the point of Richard’s sword while he practices.

The cat offers a string of subplot that helps feed into our growing picture of Alec as a person. Alec presents himself as a dropout student, slumming it in Riverside and constantly asking for trouble, but getting away with it thanks to Richard. Through Alec’s actions he is shown to be playing a complex game of his own making.

On the other side of the city we are shown evidence of the scope of Duchess Tremontaine’s influence and power. Michael Godwin and Lord Ferris are case studies of this as we see their futures shaped by her hand. Alec plays these same games, just on a smaller stage. His pawns being the cats and people of Riverside. One of his favourite and most exciting chess pieces is Richard, the swordsman.

The relationship between Alec and Richard is very interesting. Richard knows that Alec hides a lot from him but he doesn’t generally care to delve too deep without invitation, though he often gives Alec gifts befitting the station Richard suspects he comes from. Richard also knows that part of the appeal of the relationship to Alec is that it holds an element of danger. There’s an underlying game between them where Alec puts his life on the line and Richard has to fight to keep it safe.

I don’t think I can do Alec and Richard’s relationship justice in this post. It needs a space of its own to be discussed properly. The same goes for Richard himself. St Vier is a celebrity in his own right. We hear of his reputation and the way others perceive him. We also get to dive in close and follow him ourselves, giving us a glimpse of both his interior and exterior life. He is a brilliant swordsman with a strict code of honour. He is not the only one available on the swordsman market but he comes across a rare and peculiarly strict beast even in that arena.

St Vier’s high standards of honour are contrasted with that of the nobles. ‘My honour isn’t worth your attention’ he thinks at one point when he finds himself being judged by them.

The perceived split between the world of Riverside and the world of the nobles is often showed up best in the characters that walk in between them, like Richard and Alec. In these characters we are given grounds to argue that the two worlds aren’t always quite as different or separate as they would like to believe. There are kingmakers like Alec and the Duchess and players like St Vier and Lord Ferris in both. When one group harms the other the governing system struggles to reconcile the two worlds as existing under the same umbrella with, at the very base of it all, the same underlying codes of justice and revenge. I love the complex politics at play in this novel.

There are so many interesting discussion to have about Swordspoint. I could go on about it in depth in several posts (and I just might). Today I wanted to take a moment to demonstrate how interesting and brilliant it is, and I hope anyone who finds the ideas discussed here even mildly interesting will consider giving Swordspoint a go.

Lauren x

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