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Ellen Kushner – Swordspoint

February 27, 2013

11. Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners by Ellen Kushner (1987)
Riverside, Book 1

Read By: Ellen Kushner with supporting voicework from Dion Graham, Katherine Kellgren, Robert Fass, Nick Sullivan, Simon Jones
Length: 10h 54min (368 pages)

Genre: Fantasy (technically)

Started: 07 February 2013
Finished: 15 February 2013

Where did it come from? Free download from Audible a while back.
Why do I have it? I’d heard quite a bit about Kushner, but never read her work beyond the short story anthology Welcome to Bordertown. Plus it was free!

A good swordsman should
pick his fights, but this is one
he can’t get free of.

Summary: The city exists in two halves: Riverside and the Hill. Among the nobles that live on the Hill, there is no finer form of entertainment than watching hired swordsmen duel in a fight to the death, while in Riverside, favored pastimes run more to drinking, dice, brawling, and the occasional crime or two. Richard St. Vier exists in an uneasy limbo between those two worlds. He is the city’s preeminent swordsmen, never having lost a fight, and his fashionable status means that he can pick and choose among the contracts offered him by the highest nobles in the land. But his roots are in Riverside, where he still lives in rented rooms with Alec, a young scholar whose biting wit frequently gets him into trouble – although nothing that Richard’s sword can’t get him out of. Richard is content to interact with the nobility only insofar as his contracts take him, but when he finds himself caught up in their schemes, he suddenly realizes just how quickly even the city’s most famous swordsman can fall.

Review: The short version: I had some issues with the pacing/plotting, and the audio production was not my favorite, but overall, I quite enjoyed this book, mostly due to the worldbuilding and the incredible characters.

So, to the good stuff first. The subtitle of this book is “A Melodrama of Manners”, and I think that’s an incredibly apt description. It’s labelled as “fantasy” because it’s an imagined setting rather than a historical one, but otherwise there are no fantasy elements to speak of. All swords and no sorcery, as it were. (But boy howdy, were there swords. I know only a little bit about fencing, but the fight scenes were amazingly well done.) In general, both the worldbuilding and the action sequences were really great. From the first page, with its description of a quiet snowy morning stained by blood, I was immediately immersed in the world of Riverside, and of the fine houses on the Hill.

Similarly, I really enjoyed the characterization of Richard and Alec. Richard is such an interesting character; quiet and unassuming in a way that you don’t typically see in the hero of a novel, but with layers of depth underneath his outer persona. I also like that his story is not a coming of age, it’s not a redemption story, we don’t get all of his backstory, and despite his obvious talent with the sword, he’s still essentially an everyman character. Alec has a bit more obvious personality, but he too has a depth to his character that is not immediately apparent but emerges as the story unfolds. And what I liked most was their interactions, and watching what each of them drew out of the other. (Also, I appreciated that the homosexuality (or bisexuality) of various characters was taken as a given within the world Kushner created, rather than being a Thing worthy of remark – similar to my feelings about Sing the Four Quarters by Tanya Huff, although this one was published even earlier.)

Unfortunately, some of the secondary characters didn’t feel quite as three-dimensional. I think a large part of this was due to the way the novel was structured. Chapters alternate between the POVs of multiple characters, which is fine, but the real conflict in the plot doesn’t really appear until at least halfway in. Kushner has been weaving threads of the eventual conflict throughout the first half of the book, but I found that because I didn’t know where the story was going, I wasn’t sure which characters and which schemes and which pieces of gossip were eventually going to become important. This would be fixed on a re-read, and even on my first read, I was enjoying the characters and the setting enough that I was willing to go along for a meandering ride, but it did mean that I spent a large portion of the book feeling vaguely lost.

My other main issue with this book was the audio production. It is narrated by the author with a full supporting cast, and “enhanced” with ambient noises (crowds muttering, doors knocking, swords clanging, etc.) Two out of three of those things have the potential to be hugely problematic for me, and almost kept me from listening to it. But I’ve listened to full-cast productions (His Dark Materials, Graceling) that I’ve enjoyed, and my experience with “enhanced” noises has varied from mildly distracting (Ella Enchanted) to actually enjoyable (Dragon Rider), so I was willing to give it a shot. It turns out there are ways of doing these things in an audio production that I enjoy… and this wasn’t it. Ellen Kushner’s narration is quite good; she has a good sense of timing, and who better to know what a character is supposed to sound like in a given scene? But the full cast was used only intermittenly, with actors reading their lines in one chapter (or scene) and Kushner reading them in the next, which I found hugely distracting, and difficult to learn to distinguish characters by their voices. The background noises were actually not as distracting as I’d feared, and did add something to the ambiance of a number of scenes, but were also too inconsistently used. (There were a few times when there hadn’t been any sound effects for a while, and then someone would knock on the door very loudly, that made me jump like no one’s business.)

Overall, I enjoyed listening to this book, even during the somewhat slow-moving first section, and would be interested in reading one of the other books Kushner’s set in the same world. Just maybe not in audiobook format next time. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: This is another one of those books that I would definitely give to someone that likes historical fiction but thinks they don’t like fantasy. On that note, it should appeal to readers of either genre who like swashbuckling, duels of honor, and scheming and counterscheming nobles.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Audible

Other Reviews: Good Books & Good Wine, The Little Red Reviewer, Nerfreader, Stella Matutina, and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Snow was falling on Riverside, great white feather-puffs that veiled the cracks in the façades of its ruined houses; slowly softening the harsh contours of jagged roof and fallen beam.

© 2013 Fyrefly’s Book Blog. All Rights Reserved. If you’re reading this on a site other than Fyrefly’s Book Blog or its RSS feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is being used without permission.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2013 12:43 pm

    YES! I think I would have loved this book so much more if I had read the print version. The audiobook was just a little too much from the full cast to the random sound effects, and I think I would rather have listened to it narrated completely by Ellen Kushner instead.

    Like you, I’d totally read another book set in this world, just in print not in audio.

    • March 10, 2013 4:21 pm

      April – “Too much” is a good way of putting it. But I’ve got The Privilege of the Sword on my wishlist. :)

  2. February 27, 2013 9:48 pm

    Oh how I loved Swordspoint! It’s just amazing and perfect. I don’t usually go for anything close to “romance”, but if they were all written like this, I’d read nothing but romance! I reviewed it a while ago:

    http://littleredreviewer.wordpress.com/2011/06/07/these-are-a-few/

    i know exactly what you mean about audio, an iffy audio (or just one that doesn’t work for you) can make a book very difficult. I’m plodding my way through the audio of Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, and while I’m loving the story, the quality of this particular audio version is pretty bad.

    • March 10, 2013 4:25 pm

      Redhead – Added your link, thanks! I haven’t come across many books where the audio ruined the book for me (and that wasn’t true in this case either), but it’s a shame when it does happen.

  3. February 28, 2013 2:27 am

    I’m just getting in to audiobooks and so I’m really trying to see what other people say about an audiobook before I get it. With that said, I think I’d really like this book, so I think I’ll try it in print, but I will definitely be checking out Dragon Rider in audio.

    By the way, I sent you an email. Sometimes my email goes to spam, so I wanted to give you a heads up. :)

    • March 10, 2013 4:26 pm

      Trish – The audio in Dragon Rider isn’t for everyone, but if it doesn’t bother you, I think you’ll find it really fun.

  4. February 28, 2013 12:21 pm

    Another person here who wishes she had the print version! I didn’t even get through the first hour of the audio, I think. I like full cast productions but switching between cast and author for the same character was just weird.

    • March 10, 2013 4:28 pm

      Anastasia – Agreed. I would have preferred all Ellen Kushner’s narration, and I would also have been okay with all full-cast narration, but I really wasn’t crazy about the switching back and forth.

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