elfscribe5 (elfscribe5) wrote,
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Book rec: Swordspoint

Hi friends,
Next chapter of Oromedon's Lessons is done and with my darling beta, so should be up in another couple of days.

In the meantime, I thought I'd rec a book I recently read and loved so much I turned right around and read it again.  The book is Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner.   I love fantasy, as you know from my affection for Prof. Tolkien's works, but so much of post-Tolkien fantasy is derivative and poorly written, with pompous, fake sounding medieval language, and incompletely imagined worlds.  Well, Swordspoint is none of that.

This is a smart, well-written, character-driven novel in a richly detailed world, filled with politics, intrigue, and class distinctions, very much in the Dangerous Liaisons mode. There are no wizards or magic rings here.  Instead we have the glittering world of privileged noblemen and women playing their games of power and the underworld town across the river, full of whores and pickpockets.  Treading back and forth between these worlds is the swordsman, Richard St. Vier, who the nobles hire to fight their duels for them. He is a skilled and deadly assassin who lives by his own unwavering code of honor. Certainly his epitaph would be, ‘to thine own self be true.'  And in that, he is more honorable than his employers.  In this story, he has a male lover, the unstable and brilliant scholar Alec, with a mysterious background, who seems to belong to no world except the one he forges with his lover.  These are just wonderful characters and the center of the story is their unusual, but abiding love for each other. (Their scenes in bed together are stunningly hot, even though they are suitably discreet. It is mainstream, after all. Really inspires the slash.) Here are a few excerpts from St. Vier's pov:
 
"It was the voice, rich and arrogant and taut with breeding, that always undid him in the dark. He felt for Alec's lips with his fingers, and softly brushed over them . . . . 

Richard stroked him in answer; felt him shudder, felt the sharp fingers sink into his muscle. Richard teased himself, pulling Alec along with him, deeper into no-return with the smoothness of skin against skin, the harshness of breath and bone. . .

"There is no one like you, they never told me there was anyone like you, I had no idea, it amazes me, Richard - Richard - if I had known - if I - "
Alec's hands struck against his throat, and for a moment Richard didn't realize that pain was pain."

The attraction between these two deserves a whole essay of analysis, as it is far from conventional. The characters have come alive for me and I loved them, even though looked at objectively, they are both sociopaths, neither flinches at the deaths of those who cross them. I find myself thinking about them during the day and aching to read more scenes with the two of them, a sign that the author got to me.

One of the things I love about this book is that same sex relationships are depicted as simply another sexual choice, equally valid, and not particularly a cause for comment. Affairs with both men and women seem the norm on both sides of the river.

The other characters, even minor ones are very well-drawn, particularly the duchess.  And that's another thing I liked is that women are strong, active characters, which is not always the case in fantasy.

There is a lot of depth here.  The author clearly wrote a lot of backstory that she didn't include and that is sometimes frustrating, but gives the sense of stepping completely into another world. I didn't understand all the characters' machinations until the second reading.  This is also a mythic feel here, where the danger for both groups, comes from crossing boundaries from the world of scheming wealth and privilege to the world of cutthroat poverty. (On the whole, the characters of the poor town of Riverside come off as more human than the nobles.)

And then there is Alec and Richard St. Vier, a law unto themselves. The ending with the trial of St. Vier is suitably dramatic.  I never predicted what would happen in this book.
 
In addition the writing is wonderful: fresh, original, witty, and evocative. I swear I didn't detect a single cliched phrase.  I would love to be able to write something like this.

My only quibble is that Ms. Kushner introduces some main characters who then don't work effectively back into the narrative at the end, as they should. But that shouldn't stop anyone from enjoying the story.

A little aside is that I first heard Ellen Kushner several years ago after The Fellowship came out when she did a tribute to J.R.R. Tolkien on her PBS show, Sound and Spirit. It was very well done.  She said that Tolkien was her inspiration, even though the characters in her world dealt more in politics and manners than in saving the world. I didn't think to look up her book then. Glad I found it now.   

Okay, I could go on at greater length, but won't . . . [everyone breathes sigh of relief].  
Anyway, I ordered Kushner's more recent book set in this same world called The Fall of Kings, co-written with Delia Sherman.  So far, I've only read the prologue, but it is one of the most compelling and original openings I've ever seen.  I defy anyone to read it and not have to read further, which I will do shortly.

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  • The LOTR Histories: A Review

    Last fall, I read the first two books in the History of the Lord of the Rings, edited by Christopher Tolkien, The Return of the Shadow and The…

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