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.
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