Ellen Kushner – Swordspoint
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.
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.
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