Review: Swordspoint

Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner


While I don’t particularly believe in age restrictions (although I will admit to being completely shocked that I could rent the NC-17 film Shame from the public library without someone checking my ID; I suppose acne scars technically prove that I’m past adolescence), there are some texts that come to us at exactly the right time. For instance, my first viewing of The Fellowship of the Ring at age ten revealed to me my fannish destiny. But there are also texts that we encounter later that we could have used earlier. As Renay and I make our way through Xena: Warrior Princess, I can’t help but having the sneaking suspicion that I might have twigged onto both the “queer as a three dollar bill” and “tall dark femmes” things a lot earlier if I’d been watching that as it aired.

Swordspoint is such a novel. During my early teens, I was obsessed with seeking out representations of queer men in the media—not as a queer kid, but as someone who consumed astronomical amounts of super-generic and surprisingly heteronormative boys’ love manga. Heck, my first reading of The Great Gatsby happened because someone told me there was queer subtext in it. I look back upon such objectification with not a little mortification (I don’t call ’em the Wombat Years for nothing), but we all must start somewhere on our journey to self-actualization. This obsessive search eventually turned me towards texts that treated its queer characters as people, not objects, be it of pity or of lust.

Had I been handed a copy of Swordspoint at thirteen, then, I would have devoured it whole. Reading it, I kept thinking how delighted I would have been, pouring over Ellen Kushner’s Wildean court intrigue, trying to wring out every detail about the love affair between Richard St. Veir and the mysterious Alec as I could. As an adult, Swordspoint doesn’t bear the burden of a single story, which is as it should be. But, on some level, I miss the electric rush of finally getting my hands on rare (to me) information and devouring it as fast as I can.

So, looked at on its own, Swordspoint is a trifle, albeit not a delightful one. (It’s deeply dark chocolate, if we must select a foodstuff.) It has its delights, yes, but it also has so many sharp, jagged edges. St. Veir may be a popular folk hero, but he also takes genuine delight in armed combat and the art of killing. Alec, who suffers from suicidal depressive periods, is theatrical and cruel. They get caught in the schemes of nobles, who value human life pretty much the same way they do, albeit couched in more intricate rules and regulations that let them feel as though they have the moral upper hand.

While it lacks a monarch, the vaguely defined Hill and Riverside feel like nothing so much as the English Restoration; such fashionable, careless, and cruel people! Actually, I’m immediately reminded of the film Restoration, where Robert Downey Jr.’s quack comes to appreciate the simple life after the gaudy cruelty of the court. (Obviously, I’m much more reminded of the first half’s set dressing.) But the schemes themselves are less sturdy; there’s some noise about a scientific discovery of Alec’s that may have driven him towards his current situation in life, but it’s never picked up. Rather, the plot centers on two jobs St. Vier is offered and the actions of both the employer and the mark. Characters rise and fall in the narrative like waves, marking it difficult to keep track of their movements.

This ultimately means that Swordspoint is an exercise in atmosphere, a historical fantasy melodrama with a Wildean streak. Melodrama has gotten a bum rap that it doesn’t necessarily deserve; after all, art is supposed to engage our emotions. That is why it it’s art, and why art can be found in the strangest things. With the revolving door of characters (perspectives often change mid-paragraph, which is a bit disorienting), it can be hard to find something to hold onto, but I ended up so entranced at the end that I spent an evening at work privately fuming that I couldn’t just pick it up and polish off the last thirty pages.

Bottom line: Swordspoint is an exercise in atmosphere, a historical fantasy melodrama with a Wildean streak. If you’d like.

I rented this book from the public library.

2 thoughts on “Review: Swordspoint

  1. It is no secret that I love this book. But based on this review, I think you’d like its semi-sequel, The Privilege of the Sword, more–the story is much more focused, though it loses the cross-class depth of Swordspoint which made me enjoy that novel so much (i.e. we get to see just about every level of society in the unnamed city; the class boundaries in Privilege are far narrower).

    There are also some very good short stories out there that help define the various characters of Swordspoint more, though they aren’t necessary reading (And “The Death of the Duke” is best saved for after reading Privilege.)

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