In an unnamed city, the nobility literally look down on Riverside from the Hill. They love Richard St Vier, common swordsman, for his grace and his style. He kills with a single thrust to the heart. Welcome to a world of barbed wit, disguised malice and exquisite fencing.
I have enjoyed reading this enormously. It was particularly well-suited to a weekly reading format (and a million thanks to Lisa for being our ringleader and Dvorah for recommending how to divide the book up). In fact, the live group read was so much fun (see previous weekly re-caps), it has become hard to tell just how much I loved the book (lots, ok? That goes without saying. But how many lots?).
I have loved exquisite bitchiness since Dangerous Liaisons, and Swordspoint (of similar vintage) delivers it in spades. Our main purveyor is Alec, Richard’s mysterious lover, who won’t speak of his past and who wanders the dangerous streets of Riverside looking for a fight. Yes, he likes watching Richard kill for him, but there’s more going on although for the longest time neither Richard nor I could be sure quite what. The layers of damage here are bruising; I didn’t like Alec, although I enjoyed him for his acidity.
I didn’t like how he treated Richard, but it was a long time before I accepted that I shouldn’t like Richard either. He’s an excellent swordsman in part because he has no moral compass whatsoever. It’s a well-executed sleight of hand; Ellen Kushner had me firmly in her protagonist’s camp before I clocked just how arrogant, naive and vicious he actually is. And she’d done her job well: I still rooted for him, even though I couldn’t admire him.
Then there’s the Duchess. The Duchess of Tremontaine isn’t the Marquise de Merteuil, because she’s too busy being herself: elegant, manipulative, the spider at the heart of the city’s web, orchestrating politics and passions with a twitch of her silken threads. She’s almost entirely off-screen, but her influence is everywhere. She’s overpowering. I love her to pieces.
The other players: Michael Godwin, Lord Ferris, Lord Halliday, Lord Horn, are all arguably her pawns, but the novel largely plays out from their perspective. There was a moment when I found myself missing a female narrative point of view, but mostly I was relishing the measured prose and mannered insults too much. I enjoyed having no idea what the Duchess was up to (and indeed whether she was up to anything, or whether everyone just assumed she was).
Ultimately, this is a character-driven novel of politics and manipulation. It relishes holding facts behinds its back in such a way that you know they’re there, even when you don’t know what they are. It excels at making terrible people terribly engaging. There are little details I can take exception to (why are all the women of Riverside prostitutes?) and there are enough red herrings that at the end you have to spend time filing them all away as you realise they were distractions (or set-up for the future; but probably distractions). It’s not a high-stakes action epic, and people seeking plot-driven excitement may find that frustrating. It didn’t bother me at all.
The narrative pay-off at the end – quite apart from me getting my much-loved courtroom scene (I do love a good fantasy legal debate, even though I don’t like books about lawyers) – is immense. The wheels that have been spinning from the start result in startling choices and unexpected outcomes. The emotional aftermath is heart-breaking, with an open invitation to return for more abuse (so I’ll see you a week on Sunday for The Privilege of the Sword).
Reasons to love Swordspoint: nuanced characters with great depth and personal foibles; a second world setting that could be any 18th century European city (arguably this is fantasy only because of the shelf it sits on); entertaining hi-jinks including shinnying down a drainpipe from a mistress’s bedroom wearing nothing but a hat; and some scenes all the steamier for mostly leaving things to your imagination. But mostly, I loved it for the characters and the way you’re left feeling like your heart is a much-punctured pin cushion.
**** (and a half, if I did things by halves)
The next Riverside Read-along (The Privilege of the Sword) starts Sunday, 20th March at 10pm GMT. Join us for live-tweeted reactions (we need a new hashtag, and I’ve just realised that TPotS spells teapots. Entirely amused), little iced cakes and weekly response posts.
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The Backlist Burndown is a new monthly meme hosted by Lisa at Tenacious Reader. She is determined to read and review at least one book from her backlist each month, and is inviting likeminded readers to get on board. Check in at Tenacious Reader on the last Friday of each month to join the Burndown.