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Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners | [Ellen Kushner]

Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners

On the treacherous streets of Riverside, a man lives and dies by the sword. Even the nobles on the Hill turn to duels to settle their disputes. Within this elite, dangerous world, Richard St. Vier is the undisputed master, as skilled as he is ruthless--until a death by the sword is met with outrage instead of awe, and the city discovers that the line between hero and villain can be altered in the blink of an eye.
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Publisher's Summary

Audie Award, Audio Drama, 2013

Award-winning author, narrator, and screenwriter Neil Gaiman personally selected this book, and, using the tools of the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX), cast the narrator and produced this work for his audiobook label, Neil Gaiman Presents.

A few words from Neil on Swordspoint: "It's as if Jane Austen wrote fantasy... an imaginary world where the characters are real people: a Vanity Fair of aristocrats, rogues, orphans, and heroes; a book where the best swordsman in the land can make far more money dueling at private parties than he can as a knight-errant. Ellen Kushner casts her sharp eye over them all, but with great affection and lavish detaiI.... couldn't think of a better performer for Swordspoint than Ellen, and her reading is polished, intimate, and – since Riverside is of her creation – wholly authentic.

"What really makes this production of Swordspoint unique, though, is the supporting cast in this special "illuminated production". Several key scenes are fully dramatized, and throughout the entire book's soundscapes you will hear the cadences of the marketplace, the music of the drawing rooms, and of course the ring of steel drawn from the scabbard. Ellen actually wrote new dialogue for the crowd scenes, so the actors aren't just mumbling "rhubarb rhubarb" to simulate speech.... You'll be able to hear performances from acclaimed and award-winning actors, including Dion Graham, Katherine Kellgren, Robert Fass, Nick Sullivan, and the remarkable Simon Jones."

In this exciting new "illuminated production", the author herself reads her own work, supported by a full cast. Author Ellen Kushner is also a popular performer and National Public Radio host (Sound & Spirit). For years, fans have been asking her to record her own audiobook of Swordspoint. To mark the 25th anniversary of the book's publication, Ellen teamed up with Sue Zizza of SueMedia Productions, known for her signature touches of soundscapes and sound effects, multi-voiced dramatizations, and all the techniques of "illuminated production". Together they have made Swordspoint a brand-new audio experience, in which the full supporting cast dramatizes and illuminates key scenes from Ellen's compelling narration.

On the streets of Riverside, a man lives and dies by the sword. Even the nobles on the Hill turn to duels to settle their disputes. And in this city, the swordsman Richard St. Vier is the undisputed master, as skilled as he is ruthless – until a death by the sword is met with outrage instead of awe, and the city discovers that the line between hero and villain can be altered in the blink of an eye. Because every man lives at sword's point, if you can only find his weakness. And even the greatest swordsman in Riverside has one thing he cares for deeply.

Hailed by critics as "a bravura performance, a delight from start to finish" (Locus), "intelligent, humorous and dramatic" (Publishers Weekly) and "witty, beguiling and ingenious" (Interzone) , Kushner's "Melodrama of Manners" has become a classic, a favorite not only of Neil Gaiman but a host of distinguished colleagues, including George R. R. Martin ("unforgettable!"), Orson Scott Card ("powerful") and Gene Wolfe ("as if Noel Coward had written a vehicle for Errol Flynn!").

The artwork used for the audiobook edition of Swordspoint is based on the artwork and design by Thomas Canty for the original first US edition of the book.

To hear more from Neil Gaiman on Swordspoint, click here, or listen to the introduction at the beginning of the book itself.

Learn more about Neil Gaiman Presents and Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX).

©1987 Ellen Kushner (P)2011 SueMedia Productions

What the Critics Say

"A glorious thing, the book we might have had if Noel Coward had written a vehicle for Errol Flynn. It’s wicked and visual and witty, and it pulls you in like the doorman of a Bourbon Street bar." (Gene Wolfe)

"Swordspoint begins with a single drop of blood on a field of new-fallen snow, an image that burned itself forever into my mind the first time I encountered it. I can close my eyes and see it still. It’s a terrific opening, an unforgettable opening... and the book just gets better from there." (George R. R. Martin)

“Ellen Kushner delivers her utterly unique blend of modern fantasy and nineteenth-century novel of manners with absolute conviction, affectionate humor, and perfect phrasing. “Neil Gaiman Presents” has provided original music, lively soundscapes, and the voices of some of the audio world’s most distinguished performers. Hearing Katherine Kellgren, Dion Graham, and others sharpen the cutting, insightful dialogue is pure pleasure.” (Audiofile)

What Members Say

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  •  
    Stacy United States 04-06-12
    Stacy United States 04-06-12 Member Since 2012
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    "What a beautiful book..."

    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.

    12 of 12 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Acacia United States 12-04-11
    Acacia United States 12-04-11 Member Since 2011

    echostecho

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    "Ellen Kushner Owes me 30$"
    What did you like about this audiobook?

    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.


    48 of 51 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jefferson Jonan-ku, Fukuoka-shi, Japan 01-01-12
    Jefferson Jonan-ku, Fukuoka-shi, Japan 01-01-12 Member Since 2010

    I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.

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    "Witty, Deadly, Sexy Sword Fights and Manners"

    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!

    30 of 32 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Bonnie Bellmore, NY, United States 08-30-12
    Bonnie Bellmore, NY, United States 08-30-12 Member Since 2001

    BJS

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    "The noises in background I found distracting"
    Would you try another book from Ellen Kushner and/or the narrators?

    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.


    What was one of the most memorable moments of Swordspoint?

    The court room scene at the end.


    What does the narrators bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

    The narrators were very good and did make the characters enjoyable


    Any additional comments?

    Eliminate all the noise, in background. It took away from the story, at least for me.

    7 of 7 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Katherine St. Johns, FL, United States 10-30-12
    Katherine St. Johns, FL, United States 10-30-12 Member Since 2009

    I'm the managing editor of the Fantasy Literature blog. Life's too short to read bad books!

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    "Mannerpunk"

    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.

    14 of 15 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Natanya Chicago, IL, United States 12-01-11
    Natanya Chicago, IL, United States 12-01-11
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    "Wiggling with glee"

    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.

    17 of 19 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ann VA, United States 11-29-11
    Ann VA, United States 11-29-11
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    "A beloved story even more vivid in audio form!"

    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.

    16 of 18 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Joey Spring, TX, United States 12-13-11
    Joey Spring, TX, United States 12-13-11 Member Since 2010
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "AHHHHHH What? Wheres the rest of it?"
    What was your reaction to the ending? (No spoilers please!)

    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.


    Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

    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.


    8 of 9 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Carol Massachusetts 12-02-11
    Carol Massachusetts 12-02-11 Member Since 2010

    It is true that I know only what I have read in books. But I have read a great many books. ("Venetia" by Georgette Heyer)

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    "Different and Thoroughly Enjoyable"

    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.

    21 of 25 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Bernie Bloomfield Hills, MI, United States 09-06-13
    Bernie Bloomfield Hills, MI, United States 09-06-13 Member Since 2006
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    "I BROKE MY OWN RULE"
    Who would you have cast as narrator instead of the narrators?

    Never, never buy a book narrated by the author. I would rather they pay the price for one excellent narrator than several mediocre ones. An excellent narrator is an artist while the others just speak or overact.


    You didn’t love this book... but did it have any redeeming qualities?

    Could not get through even to the fourth chapter.


    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
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  • Ms
    London, United Kingdom
    3/2/12
    Overall
    "The games the rich play"

    Interesting narration/dramatisation of a novel I hadn't come across before. I enjoyed the mirrored dance of manners, intrigue, swordplay and personal relationships. Something a little different for jaded palates.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  • Jan
    Newton Abbot, United Kingdom
    1/31/12
    Overall
    "Wonderful!"

    Although I'm a relative newcomer to Swordspoint, I love the world of Riverside and its characters. I really like the unique way this audiobook was presented - part narration, part dramatised, part sound effects. It brings Riverside and the Hill to life.

    The right voice reading an audiobook makes all the difference, and in this case Ellen Kushner reading her own story is perfect. I can't wait for the sequels to be given the same treatment!

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  • nogginthenog
    uk
    7/8/14
    Overall
    Performance
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    "Definitely enhanced!"
    What did you like most about Swordspoint?

    What's not to like about this book?


    Have you listened to any of the narrators’s other performances? How does this one compare?

    Very often authors reading their own work don't really do it justice. This isn't one of them - Ellen Kushner does a fabulous job, aided and abetted by a few others. I could forgive Gaiman anything for putting this together!


    Any additional comments?

    Although actually I have a confession - I read Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer and loved it so much that I rushed out and bought Swordspoint. (the paper version) It just didn't do it for me though: I put it to one side and forgot about it. Then I stumbled across this audio recording, listened to a sample and thought I'd give it another go. So glad I did - it had me absolutely gripped. For some reason, I found it came across better listening to it than reading it ... the recording is absolutely perfect with the sound effects and the brief dramatized sections enhancing rather than detracting from the whole. When it finished I rushed straight off to download the sequel, which I am currently listening to and is every bit as good. Go try!

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Beccameriel
    London, United Kingdom
    6/4/14
    Overall
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    "Witty and sophisticated fantasy"

    I LOVED this book. A fully realized fantasy world without some kind of magic is quite a novelty and this really works. The differences between the rich and poor societies are carefully drawn and totally believable. Most of the characters are quite world-weary and louche - I especially enjoyed the Duchess of Tremontaine who was rather reminiscent of the Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liasons Dangereuse (no idea if I spelt that lot right). It's refreshing, too, that everyone has a fluid sexuality - you love who you love and it doesn't matter what gender they are.

    Ellen Kushner narrates her own story very well and I think the partial dramatization and use of sound effects does help to draw you into the world. It's a really interesting approach to audio books and one that I hope to hear more often. I'm currently imagining how awesome this would be for Patrick Rothfuss's books.

    I am definitely going to get the next book in the series.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • nicole
    United Kingdom
    5/15/14
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    "A book that made me rearrange my top ten"

    In this city the rich use swordsmen to settle their disputes, either to first blood or death. Swordsmanship is both art, entertainment and noble way to settle disputes with important political and social decisions often depending on the outcome. On the face of it the noble with the most money should always win, as he or she should be able to hire the best swordsman but the best swordsman is Richard St. Vier. Coldly practical towards life and death and caring very little for anything other than the honor and challenge of his art and the whims of his love, Alec, Richard is not so easy to manipulate. Alec is, brilliant, damaged, contemptuous of the politics of the rich and fascinated by death. So the balance of power swings back and forth between the rich on the Hill and the poor in Riverside.

    There are very few `good' people (by today's standards) here, as those people would soon have been destroyed or corrupted by the harsh world they live in. Kushner's characters are so vivid and alive and I grew to love them partly because of their flaws. Ellen Kushner has an extensive grasp of the English language, which enhances her descriptions and makes the conversations between her characters so much more interesting.There aren't copious amounts of sex scenes or vapid declarations of love here, the romance is in their actions and the sacrifices they make for each other.

    Even though Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners has been published for many years now, I've still never read anything like it. There are hints of Les Liaisons dangereuses, with the social and political intrigue becoming inseparable from each other and the way most characters attempt to manipulate others, even those they may care for. It's also in the regency like setting of the story. This fantasy world has no magic or monsters (that are not in human form) but the dark fairy tale like nature of the story and beautifully described world also reminds me of Anne Bishops' writing.

    The narration is both brilliant and problematic. This is because it keeps switching between the author whom I loved and the actors who were also very good but it ended up giving you two very different voices for the main characters.

    I wasn't sure about this series at first but I gradually grew to love it so much that I've had to change my top ten audio book series. However, while it's an inelegant description, be warned this is Marmite. From the reviews it is fifty, fifty whether you will love it or hate it. Since Audible has such a good returns policy however, do you really have anything to loose by giving it a try?

    If you love this book as much as I do there is another book called The Naked City which includes a 45 minute short story, bridging the gap between Swordspoint and it's sequel The Privilege of the Sword both can be purchased from Audible.

    The site below also gives the chronology of the series including links to several of the short stories available on line. Do not read out of order or you will get huge spoilers.

    http://www.sff.net/people/kushnersherman/kushner/world.html

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Sally
    Wakefield, West Yorkshire, United Kingdom
    1/29/14
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Meh"
    Any additional comments?

    A moderately interesting story, but I just couldn't care about any of the characters. In particular, why were Richard and Alec together? There didn't seem to be any warmth or affection between them. They were both cold, damaged and unavailable.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Terry
    Surrey, United Kingdom
    6/5/13
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Disappointing"

    Maybe I was expecting too much for my intro to Ellen Kushner, but I blame that on the publicity I read before adding this audio book to my wishlist. For me, the story seemed weak with little scope and I actually found the multiple narrators a distraction not a bonus. Sorry, but I like to hear the same character's voice throughout. In this audio book it was Ellen Kushner one moment and then another narrator the next and this happened with a number of the characters. A semi-play format may have seemed a really good idea but it just did not work for me.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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