A fantasy novel without overt fantasy elements, Swordspoint was written and now is narrated by Ellen Kushner, with some scenes dramatized by Dion Graham, Katherine Kellgren, Robert Fass, Nick Sullivan, and Simon Jones. It is a witty book, and an engaging audiobook, with a plot that plays out across the economic spectrum of a city in duels and parlor conversations, clandestine rendezvous’ of lovers or plotters, as well as lords and young ruffians jockey and maneuver for power.
The novel is considered a fantasy novel but there are no dragons, no magic, no fantastic elements beyond the setting in the capital city of an unnamed country. The location has a history, geography, conventions, and politics that don’t quite fit any historic European country but bears a family resemblance to many of them. As the introduction explains, it could be a fairy tale if you don’t care to look too closely.
The style of the prose is lovely and the pacing is excellent. Kushner manages to be both witty and lyrical while hooking readers and moving the plot along. Her work was reviewed by Green Man Review in Ellen Kushner: Mannerpunk, Klezmer, and English ballads.
In addition to the beauty of her prose, Kushner’s strength lies in her characterization. Unlike fairy tale heroes and villains, her characters are recognizable people, whether rich or poor, scheming or straight-forward, each with unique strengths and dreams, passions and prejudices. Everyone has emotional baggage, and everyone steers with only partial control towards a murky future.
Our main characters are young swordsman Richard St. Vier whose pleasant demeanor belies his violent profession, which involves fighting duels to maintain the honor (or sometimes just the entertainment) of his clients. Meanwhile Richard’s lover, the mysterious contrary Alec, is trying to reinvent himself and refusing to admit to any past beyond being a failed scholar with a sharp tongue. When push comes to shove, however, the past won’t stay in the past, and both end up fighting for the people they hold dear.
The book was a delight to read in 1987 when it was first published, has been a pleasure to reread during the passing decades. It holds up well in this audio treatment. Ellen Kushner has a leg up on the average author asked to read their work aloud because she has been a radio presenter for years. Now that she, via Neil Gaiman Presents, reads her own work, that point is amply demonstrated. She has a pleasant and expressive voice and the prose of Swordspoint sounds mellifluous and graceful.
In addition to Kushner’s voice, the production includes actors and sound effects for some scenes. The incongruity of the changeover, in which we first hear a character speak in Kushner’s, then an actor’s, is jarring at first and occasionally interrupts the flow of the story, but after the first instances the convention fades into the background.
The crowd scenes are most likely to be acted, the ones where narration would slow down the action while acting can speed up the pace with people speaking over each other and accents give us an impression of the rowdy slum-dwelling Riversiders or the starchy aristocrats.
At nearly 11 hours long, this unabridged audiobook is a satisfying listen, and the acted scenes serve as a punctuation to enliven the reading. The audio version of Swordspoint can act as a lovely introduction to Riverside, and readers wishing for more stories in the same setting can continue to Fall of Kings written by Kushner and Delia Sherman, or the third (and my favorite) Riverside book, The Privilege of the Sword, which is also available as an audiobook.
Swordspoint combines a number of tropes. On one level, it is a romance between two dangerous young men. On another, it functions as a comedy of manners and class. On a third level, the novel muses about the uses of different sorts of power: physical, financial, social, and political. Swordspoint is like a cross — in the best possible way — between the dash and exploits in Alexandre Dumas’ novels and the characterization and dialog in Jane Austen.
Swordspoint is available for purchase from Audible.
(Neil Gaiman Presents, 2011)