The story is well written and very engaging if you can get past the author's less-than-stellar reading of her own work. This is one instance where paying a professional orator would have been money well spent.
An upstairs/downstairs blend of haughty aristocracy and thieving lowlife makes this a fun and fascinating performance. The manipulations and moods of the characters fill out a subtle plot well. A full radio play with background noises was a delightful extra.
People who pick up this book without knowing anything about it might be a little surprised at the turns it takes. Swordspoint is only about swords in the social sense of the word - there is little sword fighting and action of that sort is thin on the ground. But Ellen Kushner never pretends that the book will be some kind of action-packed thriller. As Neil Gaiman says in his introduction, the key to this book is in its subtitle: A Melodrama of Manners.
The story revolves around the social station of a number of aristocrats in a fantasy city, who live on 'The Hill' while the lower denizens inhabit the city by the river, handily named 'Riverside.' The two sides interact mainly when the higher classes have to get their hands dirty, by arranging affairs of dubious legality or honor, or engaging a swordsman to fight to the death on their behalf. The main character is the celebrated duelist Richard St. Veer, whose position is more often outlined in social terms than in violent ones.
Of course, it is far from that simple. A Melodrama of Manners hardly ever is. But the story is very entertaining and unusual for the sort of high-fantasy setting that this is similar to. The prose is quick and clever, and the way that the audiobook was performed was great. I hope other audiobooks follow its example. I have already listened to another of Kushner's books, and I intend to read or listen to more when I can obtain them.
I never before heard of this book. From the blurbs I expected a Napoleonic-era type book like Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange. I'm a great admirer of Jane Austen and Jane Austen-influenced writers like Patrick O' Brian. I was very surprised to find the book so pervasively homosexual. Neil Gaiman's brain is rather unique, which is perhaps how he comes up with such interesting stories, but no story can display the uniqueness of his brain as much as his assertion that this is the type of story Jane Austen would write. It stands to reason that Jane Austen would never write about an ambisexual hypocritical Thackerian community. But the use of language in this book isn't particularly elegant nor does it possess many of the formal conventions of the Napoleonic era. I can't think what prompted the comparison.
To recap. If you enjoyed reading the print version of this book and you want to hear it performed in an innovative way, then this audiobook will be to your liking. If you like period stories written with a modern voice, then you will probably enjoy this book. If you like lust-ridden characters and homosexual trysts, then you will definitely enjoy this book.
Everything led me to believe this was a swashbuckling fantasy adventure story with elevated language. Nothing informed me that this was a gay-bisexual romance written in a modern voice.
Dreamlike; complex; gorgeous.
So it's worth saying up front: there's nothing like Swordspoint. It's a perfect book. It does a lot of things at once. In the first place it's utterly unlike most fantasy in that it isn't obsessed with telling you in detail the backstory of every event and concept in its world. On the contrary, like fiction set in the world we know, it takes for granted a whole set of political and economic and geographic and cultural and historical commodities and builds a narrative inside that context, in the same way that novels generally don't bother explaining in detail the life of George Washington when mentioning the President of the United States, or the thoughts of Adam Smith when touching in passing on the division of labor.
No, in contrast Swordspoint manages to call up a vivid, intoxicating world precisely by taking it for granted. The nameless city which provides the setting for almost the entire story contains several distinct cultures: notably one of elaborate and moneyed sophistication and one of raw, vital street exuberance. Both are ultimately cultures built on theater and violence, and Ellen works out the implications of those values in in their different contexts with narrative economy and luminous prose. Very shortly after the story begins you find yourself enraptured by this society, its subtlety and corruption, its tavern vitality. And it only gets better from there.
Better than the setting, though, unlikely though that may seem, are the characters. Ellen creates a series of personalities who startle you with their intense reality; these are real people, with difficult and problematic psychologies, who choices frustrate as much as they surprise. That's as true of the leading couple as it is of the small supporting characters: even a passing background figure is a breathing reality and his presence in the story is justified by the astonishing reality of his selfhood as much as by his service to the plot. It's an amazing accomplishment.
But beyond all these the story! It's just too good to be true, that you get all the above and as well as a story so rich and authentic. You have here a narrative of political intrigue, formal violence, intertwining plots, lavish parties, and really awesome swordplay. If you're reading this and you think you might like it I can lay you money that you'll love it. Give it a chance!
Now separate from all the above is the incredible accomplishment of this production. Ellen herself is the perfect reader for the story, she's an experienced radio performer and a gifted vocal actor. Better, though, even than Ellen's own habitation of her characters, is the so-called "illuminated manuscript" of this glorious production. In the critical set-pieces -- where the characters on stage grow numerous and the scene grows vivid -- Ellen's narration gradually fades out to be replaced by a full-cast audio drama, accompanied by incidental music and sound effects. It mirrors the experience of Ellen reading you her masterpiece as you drowse in bed: sometimes you're listening to her telling you the story, and sometimes you're dreaming yourself into the story, complete with voice actors and the sound of waves against your lavish party barge. It's an incredible experience which kept me trapped in my car until I finished it. I find myself thanking the Internet several times a week for the miracle of this production: the fact that I get to keep it forever and listen to it whenever I want seems too good to be true.
Ellen, like Dorothy Dunnett, is the absolute master of extended set-pieces, and these are the grand moments of the book. You get, for example, an encounter between an experienced, ahem, lady of the evening of the people of her district discussing a recent swordfight, with the crowd arguing over who won and who died and who was responsible for the fight. You get a crowd of drawling aristocrats coasting over an ink-black winter river on a barge, covered in heavy furs and dining as fireworks detonate overhead. You get lovers torn apart by their own heavy pasts; you get political drama at the highest level of complexity and sophistication, ringing out in heavy phrases of ceremony in the halls of high justice. It's just impossible to say which of these is best; you'll see.
Once you hear Swordspoint you'll long for more. Happily there's plenty: Privilege of the Sword is already on Audible, and Fall of the Kings will be out soon. All produced and narrated by Ellen, all elaborated illuminated just like this. It's a beautiful world and you get to visit it whenever you like.
The title and the introduction are misleading. The story is just plain boring and I love both fantasy book and Jane Austen
I have worked in information Technology for 25 years and have run my own small business for 23 years. I love books!
I spent a lot of time trying to bond with this book - but it was just horrible. The narrator puts the emphasis in all the wrong places and it just drove me crazy.
I don't know if Neil was on crack for this book but it is horrible. I am very open to all types of lit but after 4 hrs of this book I actually s
topped it and said (I'm bored). maybe if you are gay this holds some attraction , but I'm really open minded and even this bored me,. I've liked some of neal s books so I took his word...crap
As far as I can tell no one reviewing this book mentioned that the story is a sappy, homosexual romance.
I read it because Neil Gimond described it as "what Jane Austen would have written if she wrote fantasy". The comparison is a slander of Jane Austen's writing style.
Swordpoint doesn't have much action and frankly the "witty dialect" and plot consist of characters speaking somewhat in period for Jane Austen's books. This is not enough to entitle a book to the description of clever. The only shrewd part was two sentences on fireworks. I kept waiting for a surprising plot twist or something.
If someone had bothered actually saying what book was about I would not have wasted my time or a credit on such trash. Thank goodness for Audible's return policy.So fair warning.
a dedicated dilettante
Swordspoint is a particularly good example of the challenges of book selling in a world of genre focus and the challenges of making your work known. Swordspoint has been called a "melodrama of manners", a fantasy, a high romance and a fairy tale for grown ups. To me, it seems like an alternate world history novel about the political and sexual intrigues of court. Obviously that's not a genre. One distinguishing feature of the novel, and possibly the fantasy element, is that nearly all of the men are bisexual; none of the women are depicted this way
Her descriptions, characters, pacing (for a book on court intrigues) and world creation are spot on. It is a testament to her writing that I became invested in what happened to Richard. Her descriptions present the world of Riverside in such a way that I feel as though I've furtively traveled through the streets or wandered up the Hill. It's also described in such a way, that I wouldn't like to visit, let alone live there. The characters who peopled her story were often complex and clever. Ironically, the two people who seemed to have the best character were killers: Richard St Vier and Vincent Applethorpe (a former swordsman who ran a fencing school).
It is a well built world I don't care for peopled with complex characters that I mostly don't like and has as its main focus clever politicking and sexual intrigue amongst the lords of the city which I don't prefer as a focus. If you like this stuff (and the bisexual element doesn't bother you), then you'll like Ms. Kushner's book.
I had an opportunity to listen to much of the audiobook (I went between the Kindle and Audible versions using Whispersync for Voice). Overall, it nicely done. It was not quite a full audio play but it was a multi-cast reading with sound effects. While Ms. Kushner has solid narration skills developed doing radio with WGBH (Boston), the tone in her voice is not my favorite. She does a nice job of narration; this is simply personal preference.