This delicately drawn tale takes place between the high and low neighborhoods of a fantasized city vaguely like 16th-17th century Europe. As with all good fairy tales, there's blood, squalor, beauty, mystery, and maybe even a wicked witch of sorts, although no spells or sorcery. The protagonist, Richard St. Vier, is a swordsman, and thus, a professional killer, and he does what no professional killer should ever do--he falls in love. The object of his affection is Alec, a brittle, self-destructive, secretive refugee from university. When Richard and Alec inadvertently become entangled in the complex political maneuvers and personal vendettas of the city's nobility, trouble (and occasional mayhem) ensues.
The great strength of the book is its exquisite prose, perfectly polished, each phrase lovingly considered; the description of the fireworks at a party is enough to take your breath away. And then its primary characters: Richard and Alec are both so damaged that they can barely make up one heart between them, but their flaws and their strengths are realistically portrayed, and you want them to win for each other's sake.
This is not a "world-building" fantasy. Everything in it, all the jockeying for power, even the many vibrant and detailed secondary characters, is set dressing for the drama involving the lovers, although it's gorgeous set dressing. Wondering exactly how the Council of Lords got that way, or why there's a Dragon Chancellor or a Crescent Chancellor? You'll never know. You'll get just enough detail to work out the unfolding situation and no more. You won't even learn how Richard and Alec found each other in the first place, because it doesn't matter to the plot. This leads to what I consider the book's major flaw: because the supporting action is so richly presented, it's a disappointment when parts of it fail to resolve. In particular, we spend a lot of time with a secondary character who then gets shuffled offstage with only an inconclusive parting glance, and we're left to surmise about his fate, despite his prior importance.
All of which won't matter at all if you find the prose and the lovers sufficiently compelling, which I certainly did, and even if all the political plots don't entirely unfold, they're still great fun to watch.
Performance-wise, Kushner is an excellent reader of her own work. This recording is partially dramatized, with actors reading the characters in selected scenes and added sound effects. It's pleasant enough, particularly with the musical interludes, but occasionally an annoyance (oy, whose idea was it to use an old mechanical typewriter to imitate the sound of a crackling fire?), and by and large I don't think I would have missed it; Kushner does well enough on her own.
I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
If you like non-supernatural fantasies with lots of sword fighting (most with words, some with swords), witty dialogue, vivid descriptions, charismatic characters, explorations of power, politics, and honor, you should give Ellen Kushner???s Swordspoint a try. (It even features a perfect parody of a Jacobethan revenge tragedy.)
The setting of Swordspoint is an Elizabethan or Jacobean-like city comprised of the Hill, atop which the power-scheming and pleasure-partying nobles live their lives of privilege, and Riverside, the lower district of derelict mansions where the riffraff (rogues, whores, pickpockets, and swordsmen, professional duelist-assassin-bodyguards who sell their swords to aristocratic contracts) live their sordid lives.
Kushner creates appealing and flawed characters, among them Richard, an illiterate, intelligent, usually self-possessed swordsman, Alec, an aristocratic, sardonic, occasionally suicidal ex-scholar, and Michael, a callow gigolo Lord who wants to be taken seriously. Their intertwining stories are absorbing and unpredictable. All of her characters feel like real people, with pasts and ambitions, loves and hates. And gird your loins for a seductively human and frank (though never sensational or graphic) homosexual romance.
About the ???illuminated??? audiobook (with author Kushner reading everything, except for certain intense scenes for which different readers read different characters??? voices, and with some sound effects being used for things like doors opening, footsteps sounding, swords clashing, and fires burning, etc.), I liked it, but that may be due to my liking Swordspoint. That is, I wish Kushner had read everything without sound effects OR a cast of readers had read everything with sound effects, but I like the novel and various readers so much that I enjoyed the audiobook. And the music used to introduce or conclude intense scenes or chapters was well done.
Neil Gaiman describes Swordspoint as being what Jane Austen would write if she wrote fantasy, but Kushner???s worldview is more violent and morally ambiguous, her interests more political, and her writing more modern than Austen???s. But it is interesting to imagine Lord Darcy and Henry Tilney falling in love with each other rather than with Elizabeth Bennet and Catherine Morland!
I might if all the background noise and sound effects were eliminated. I found it very distracting. It is not a movie, but an audio book.
The court room scene at the end.
The narrators were very good and did make the characters enjoyable
Eliminate all the noise, in background. It took away from the story, at least for me.
Ellen Kushner owes me gas money! I made the mistake of putting this on my ipod to listen to on my commute back from work and I got so wrapped up in the story that not only did I miss my exit, but I drove in large consecutive circles around my city for over an hour. So wrapped up was I that pulling over didn't even cross my mind, in fact the only thing that brought me back to reality was the dinging sound my gas tank makes when it got low. Then I made a bee line for home to go and grab my head phones since I didn't even want to waste time going to the gas station.
Kushner is a rare author who has been blessed with the ability to deftly and engangingly read from her own work, something most authors, as I'm sure audible members can attest to, are not not blessed with. The story is deft, courageous, adventurous, dark and erotic. Really there's nothing more that I can say about it that so many other have already articulated in a much better fashion that I.
All I can say is thank you so much to both Mr Gaiman and, debts not withstanding, to Mrs, Kushner for putting this out there. This is what books should always be like and seldom are. From now on I'll make sure to keep an eye out for whatever these two put out in the future.
I'm the managing editor of the Fantasy Literature blog. Life's too short to read bad books!
Originally posted at FanLit. Come visit us!
Set in a fictional Georgian-era-type society, Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners is a "fantasy of manners" or "mannerpunk" novel. In contrast to epic fantasy, where the characters are fighting with swords and the fate of the universe is often at stake, mannerpunk novels are usually set in a hierarchical class-based society where the characters battle with words and wit. There may or may not be magic or sorcery involved and, in many ways, this subgenre of fantasy literature is more like historical fiction that takes place in an imaginary universe. The focus is on societal structures and social commentary. Characters may not be changing THE world, but they're changing THEIR world. If you like Jane Austen and P.G. Wodehouse, mannerpunk may be just your thing.
In Swordspoint, the infamous swordsman Richard St. Vier is a tool of the upper class. Those who can afford his exorbitant rates may hire him to challenge a lover who's spurned them, kill off a rival, or just make a party more exciting. Perhaps Richard wouldn't have taken that last assignment if he'd known how the nobles were scheming before the next election. Now he's been dragged into their business, and it's quite a quagmire. On top of that, he has to deal with the eccentricities of his lover Alec, a university dropout. Meanwhile, playboy Michael Godwin is pursuing the widowed duchess, trying to evade the amorous intentions of an important councilman, and secretly pursuing his desire to be a swordsman like Richard St. Vier.
Swordspoint is somewhat original considering that it's one of the first "mannerpunk" fantasies and features several bisexual characters (unusual for a book published in 1987). The book is highly recommended by Neil Gaiman and is part of his new Neil Gaiman Presents audiobook collection. For this reason, I guess, I was expecting more.
The story is diverting -- a nice enough way to spend a few hours -- but that's really about all I can say. All of the characters are unlikable, nastily plotting and scheming against each other, abusing each other, or being abused. Richard St. Vier could have been a great character, but his love for Alec was incomprehensible. Alec is boring, sullen, selfish, possibly crazy, and completely without any noticeable value other than his good looks. Why is Richard willing to kill anyone who messes with Alec, a man who's always trying to provoke situations in which Richard will be forced to fight a duel? Not a convincing love affair. I also didn't think that Swordspoint, supposedly a comedy of manners, which relies on witty and clever dialogue, was particularly witty or clever. The plot, though diverting, was not exciting or clever either.
In its favor, the book is well-written, with smooth prose and excellent pacing. I really liked Riverside, the low-class area where Richard lives. The storyline in which Michael Godwin leads Lord Horn on, changes his mind, and then tries to evade Horn's advances, is funny. I was just expecting more.
The audiobook version is narrated by Ellen Kushner herself (who you know, if you've heard her on NPR, has a nice voice) with the addition of a "full cast" who reads some of the dialogue some of the time (sometimes Kushner reads the dialogue). Kushner's tone is light and breezy and better with the narration than the dialogue. When she reads the dialogue, her breeziness and lack of variation in tone doesn't help her characters' personalities. However, the actors who occasionally do the dialogue (Dion Graham, Katherine Kellgren, Robert Faas, Nick Sullivan, and Simon Jones) are excellent. The sound effects that are occasionally added to the background are atrocious. For example, when the nobles are drinking tea from fine china cups and saucers, it sounds like they're in a downtown diner. Fires crackling and clocks ticking disturb the narration. It's ludicrous, but fortunately the sound effects are infrequent.
I'm eager to try one of Ellen Kushner's other mannerpunk novels. Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners was just okay, but I like Riverside and plan to try the sequel, The Privilege of the Sword, which takes place years later and features a female protagonist. It's also available from Neil Gaiman Presents and I've already purchased it. I'll let you know.
Swordspoint is one of my favorite novels--a perfect swashbuckling confection of a book, with elegant writing and marvelous dialogue. This audiobook captures the tone of the characters and the world perfectly. Having Ellen Kushner reading her own work plays beautifully, and the portions read by actors (all splendidly cast) provide additional richness and texture. I have not been a fan of audiobooks in the past, but this one may be enough to convert me, if there are more like it to be had.
A story I've loved for years becomes even more vivid in audio form. The addition of voice actors and music, in addition to Ms Kushner's superb reading, makes the magic of Riverside come even more alive. I've waited years for this title to appear as an audiobook, and this was well worth the wait.
Good writing has ... a balance and a rhythm. You can feel that much better when it's read aloud. --Laura Hillenbrand, author of Unbroken
Unlike most of the other reviewers posting early, I had never read (or even heard of) this book. I scooped it up based on (1) Neil Gaiman's recommendation and (2) the presence of Simon Jones, my all-time favorite narrator, in the cast.
The story is offbeat, as one might expect from Gaiman's choice of it, but is fast-moving, enjoyable, and thought-provoking, with drama, action, and an undertone of humor. The production values are great; it combines the soundtrack elements of a radio play with straight narration, and does so with superb dexterity.
There was only character who evolved and so there was only one character I cared about. He didn't get an ending. Why was so much time and promise put in to a character who was just going to be shoved off and forgotten about. The story, and the ending, otherwise was great.
The fight between the sword instructor (Applewhite I think) and Richard was fantastic. It was the right thing to really push Michael's store forward; to bad it didn't.
Swordspoint is was an amazing story with an amazing cast of characters. The author's reading was absolutely perfect and the rest of the cast did a great job as well. The music and staging of key scenes was done really nicely and didn't feel tacky. If you're debating whether or not to pick up this title, take this as a sign and get it now! You won't regret it!