Swordspoint is an underappreciated fantasy classic. Review by S.K. Slevinski
I only recently stumbled upon Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner, though it was first published nearly twenty years ago. Only after five years of discussing alternative reality literature with fellow fans online have I managed to discover this hidden gem, which leads me to believe that many fans are probably missing it.
Swordspoint is a refreshingly adult fantasy. Not in the sense that it has explicit sex or violence—both the sex and the violence are artfully and tastefully done. But it is a fantasy about adult characters, an inexplicable rarity among fantasy novels, even today. The only "swordman in training" you'll find in this book is over twenty and professed by fellow characters to be late in learning. The focus of this story is, rather, a well-accomplished swordsman, Richard St Vier, who has made his reputation as an unbeatable duelist for hire. In a world where even killing one's enemies is governed by the laws of propriety, the noblemen of the Hill hire St Vier to challenge in gentlemen's duels their rivals, enemies and even lovers. St Vier is a professional with a staggering reputation, and most of his duels are to the death. After one particularly notorious win, St Vier finds himself in demand by powerful, wealthy, and sometimes unpopular men. One man seeks his services for a high price, but does not divulge the mark. Another seeks him to challenge a man to death, though his mark has no prowess with the sword. In order to sway him, these noblemen will create a treacherous tangle of events that threatens the one thing St Vier holds most dear.
The book jacket bills Swordspoint as a "melodrama of manners"—accordingly it boasts a Victorian feel in its language and setting. The opening of this book establishes its sophisticated prose style and the breadth of its cast of Lords and Ladies. Fans of classic English romances in the ilk of Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice will find themselves very much at home. Those who yawned through period drama books in high school may find the opening less than accessible. To the latter group, I say: see it through. This is not a romance but rather a story more akin to the political fantasy currently in style, albeit with a smaller cast of central characters. It is also a refreshingly short fantasy novel, coming in around 250 pages. Fans on the lookout for subtle, character-based fantasy will be thrilled to have found this book. Despite its grand style, it is both cynical and anti-romantic where it needs to be.
Fans of historical fiction and of low-magic fantasy will find this book to be a welcome alternative to many of the current market's big concept offerings. Swordspoint is a classic that deserves greater attention from fantasy fans.
S.K. Slevinski is senior editor for ARWZ Literary Magazine and a long time reader of alternative reality fiction. She is currently a graduate student, specializing in folklore.