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Book rec: Swordspoint

Posted on 2005.05.16 at 05:56
Current Mood: enthralledenthralled
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.


A wild and untamed thing
rebeccasama at 2005-05-16 06:40 (UTC) (Link)
Hmmm that looks really good. Maybe I'll pick it up so I have something to read in jail if they arrest me for trying to bludgeon an evangelical. (Kidding. I'll behave, I promise.) It does sound quite good, though. I haven't found a really good fantasy in awhile. You might appreciate the 'Black Jewels' trilogy by Anne Bishop. That would be my rec for good fantasy.
elfscribe5 at 2005-05-16 06:50 (UTC) (Link)
Hi Rebecca,
Up late again I see. Yes, good jail reading material. That guy deserves budgeoning, oh, but we are better than that, yes. The Black Jewels? Haven't read it. I'll try to check it out.
A wild and untamed thing
rebeccasama at 2005-05-16 07:18 (UTC) (Link)
Sleep is for the weak!

I'm always up late. I function much better in the nighttime. I heartily recommend Black Jewels. It's a darker fantasy, but amazingly well done.
talullahred at 2005-05-16 10:26 (UTC) (Link)
Ooh, that sounds great! *adds to wish list*
elfscribe5 at 2005-05-17 03:14 (UTC) (Link)
I'm sure you'll like it!
kenazfiction at 2005-05-16 12:29 (UTC) (Link)
I actually ordered this last week from half.com, although I just got email from the seller telling me he accidentally sent my book to the wrong person, so who knows when I'll actually see it.... *sigh*
elfscribe5 at 2005-05-17 03:12 (UTC) (Link)
Oh wow, that's a coincidence. How did you hear about it? Hope they get the delivery sorted out. I'm sure you'll enjoy when it finally shows up.
kenazfiction at 2005-05-17 12:14 (UTC) (Link)
In my never-ending quest for slash fiction (particularly slashy fantasy and/or period pieces) I found this:
http://www.glbtfantasy.com/... lotsa good recs.

The only ones on the list I had read were Wraeththu and the Nightrunner trilogy, and I fell in love with all of them. Particularly Nightrunner...Alec and Seregil are *wonderful*!
elfscribe5 at 2005-05-18 04:41 (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for the link, Kenez. I just spent some time on that site. Too many good things out there to read!
capella_fic at 2005-05-16 18:17 (UTC) (Link)
Next chapter of Oromedon's Lessons is done and with my darling beta, so should be up in another couple of days.

Oooh - pressured, much?? No, seriously, I was intending to get on with the beta of this delicious section tonight, anyway.

Your review of Swordspoint has really whetted my appetite, although I wouldn't normally get within 50 feet of a book with a title like that, as you know. I was wondering about ordering it, but decided to wait and scrounge it from you while I'm visiting in the summer (*BOUNCES in anticipation of more quality time with Elfscribe!!!*) - yet another thing to look forward to. Can my constitution cope? It will give me something to do while you're out at work, after all. (Like that was ever an issue.) ;)

Does the second book feature the same luscious characters, or only the general setting? A series, perhaps? How I love a good series...
elfscribe5 at 2005-05-17 03:21 (UTC) (Link)
Uh yeah, no pressure. LOL! Actually you did your usual very speedy and thorough work - thanks and big sloppy kissies.
I think you'll like Swordspoint - and yeah I'll keep it around for ya. I've just started the second book. It is in the same world but takes place, I think, about 50 years later or so - so far it's great but very intellectual - lots of characters and history introduced in the beginning (just like Swordspointe)and I'm having fun trying to keep it sorted.
Later sweets,
ca_tharsis_ at 2006-07-07 01:18 (UTC) (Link)
You could be a professional critic and reviewer (as well as writer). Having read Swordpoint, I knew your careful review would be like revisiting that world again.

One scene has stood out from all the others for me. And that's the scene where Richard is placing all of his jeweled rings upon Alec's hands, and explaining each one as he does so. His character is so genuine and sincere, I found that I had been lured into the height of romance at that moment, and loved every minute of it.

Thanks again for the rec.


elfscribe5 at 2006-07-07 03:19 (UTC) (Link)
[blushes] You are too kind to me, my dear. Yes, I quite liked that scene myself. It worked so well both as characterization of Richard and Alec and their relationship as well as plot device. It doesn't get better than that.
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