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Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

By / December 4, 2015 / no comments

Arbor House Hc | Nov. 1987 | Cover art by Thomas Canty


When examining society in a particular city through an historian’s eye, the series of incidents that Ellen Kushner’s novel concerns itself with would be considered an insignificant curiosity. Unusually, Swordspoint (1987) tells a rather small and private tale. Nothing in it leads to the unveiling of any great conspiracy (though there is politics aplenty), nor is there any indication of civil unrest that might blossom into conflict characterised by revolt or war (though the novel is concerned with swordsmanship). Instead, the story brings to mind the type of minor anecdote one might find mention of when perusing the annals of, say, the Old Bailey – nothing of particular import in the wider scheme of things, but where one could easily envisage the colourful background implied by the incident that would have lent itself well to gossip amongst the ton.

Taking place in an unnamed, Ruritania-like city, Swordspoint presents a snapshot glimpse of society’s strata through an interesting though ultimately unlikeable ensemble cast. It moves from the estates of the aristocracy honeycombed upon the Hill, to the crowded, rather more decrepit dwellings on the banks of Riverside. Despite the expected, rather clichéd geographical delineation that fantasy novels utilise to amplify disparity between haves-and-have-nots, especially with overly florid and pointed descriptions, Kushner instead takes a very nonchalant approach. This ultimately highlights the schism between these worlds to general and, in some cases, superior effect.

Unwin Hyman HC (1987), Cover by Martin Springett

Kushner’s prose is concise and elegant. She exercises it well, painting a picture of the working symbiosis between two economically and socially disparate worlds. In particular, she focuses on a system whereby the aristocracy uses hired, surrogate swordsmen to duel one another in their stead to settle various disputes, including those of ‘honour’. It’s a decadent system where the queer twists of logic that governments often provide refuse to concede the murderous nature of such acts, and where duels don’t necessarily require transparency on the part of their various noble patrons. This suits the aristocrats, particularly when mired in graver matters concerning power and wealth, as this society resembling what could be early Georgian era England is one that is oiled by outward manners, appearances and secrets, where truth is merely a malleable commodity.

We’re given a glimpse into these two social orders and their interaction from a few primary perspectives. The self-assured swordsman Richard St. Vier and his scholarly lover Alec are ostensibly the central characters, but an unwitting, care-free aristocrat is equally important for a substantial section of the narrative and is the one who ‘appears’ to develop most. The tale follows the many characters and how they are affected by (and they in turn affect, often unknowingly) the political machinations of nobles prior to the city council’s regular elections. The early part of the novel unfolds rather languidly, and Kushner appropriately uses parlour room gossip and anecdotes as the chief method for very believable world-building, including setting a sense of history and tradition. Through the assorted viewpoints presented, especially those of swordsman, scholar and aristocrat, the narrative meanders through quotidian interactions and various incidents, both byzantine and mundane, that severely impact the emotional well-being of characters as their distinct, often inimical, world-views overlap and collide.

Bantam Spectra PB (2003), Cover by Tom Canty

The character relationships are the highlight of Swordspoint, and the often strained yet passionate connection between St. Vier and Alec is particularly well wrought. The calm, amoral resoluteness of the swordsman contrasts greatly with the vicious, self-destructive condescension exhibited by the scholar. Sexual mores in this society are not given any particular emphasis by Kushner and, despite often materialising as a foreground feature of the narrative, appear to be rendered as an afterthought. Such liaisons are presented insouciantly, as part and parcel of a decadent and cynical aristocracy that appears unconcerned with infidelity in its various guises, yet is paradoxically steeped in hierarchy and rituals of decorum and etiquette with attendant social consequences for any conspicuous breach. However, this blasé and undifferentiated approach to sexual relationships that Kusher’s society affects does lend the depiction of such attitudes greater credibility as well as imbuing it with a subtle elegance, especially when compared to other authors with their often cruder, glaringly conspicuous efforts in wishing to punctuate similar points.

Kushner’s prose also deserves special mention. Her graceful writing deigns neither to instruct nor satirise, and whilst the style contains flavours of Georgette Heyer, its tone is denuded of any overt sentimentality. However, continuing the comparison, Kushner’s novel also lacks Heyer’s excellent, often laugh-out-loud humour though it is infused with wit, and at least one rather diverting scenario can be owned. Besides the frequent exchanges of innuendo-laden and acerbic dialogue characteristic of Regency satires, some of the peaks of Kushner’s prose are of those short scenes of combat, not for their technical descriptions but for the ambiance and mood that effortlessly transmits the esprit of swordsmanship.

As previously remarked, Swordspoint is essentially a snapshot of the goings-on of a particular society at a particular point in time, a tangent to a curve so to speak. The impression gleaned happens to contain a story that doesn’t quite begin and neither conclusively ends, although without any of the exigencies necessitating a continuation of this particular narrative via sequels. It just so happens that some of the events glimpsed reach a quasi-conclusion by the end of the narrative; in this case culminating in a court procedural that consists of the requisite amount of drama and flair and even cleverness, yet still doesn’t quite manage to satiate expectations in terms of its atypical dénouement. Nonetheless, within the context of this in medias res beginning and the not-quite ending, the novel works well.

If it isn’t already obvious, it should pointed out that this is a fantasy novel without the presence of magic or any other typical features of the genre. Instead, it concentrates in fleshing out hidden agendas, double crosses and strands of deceit woven by minor players lusting for power in a stylish and very urbane tale of manners. Despite some slight annoyances resulting from a few seemingly contrived happenstances, Kushner writes a fine, skilful and light fantasy in Swordspoint that will appeal to those with a taste for 18th and 19th century novels detailing stratified class structures, upper class intrigues and some swashbuckling romance.

© 2015 Nirvan Jain

Ellen Kushner


About the author



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