Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner, is a witty and unabashedly queer caper of a book. It is a quirky, quick thing full of precise violence and political intrigue written in a silvery voice. The book is low fantasy—set in a world that has never quite existed, but one which is thoroughly mundane and historically rooted; no magic or elves here, folks. The story follows Richard St. Vier, a half-crazy and meticulously genius swordsman for hire, his mysterious lover Alec, and the naive nobleman Michael Godwin as the three get swept into the subterfuge and deadly political games of the ruling class. There is honor in the book—it’s shot through with honor—but there’s no morality. Or what morality exists is aggressively gray. This is a book with no clear villains, just selfish people and ambitious people and callous people. It’s a book populated by very real people. This is a book that has some tricks up its sleeve: wonderful turns of phrase, pointed social commentary, and it’s a book packed to the brim with plot and plot twists.
Swordspoint has a deft hand in its treatment of both class and sexuality. The story moves repeatedly from high to low, up to the nobleman’s Hill and back down to Riverside. The realities and limitations of life in both cases are clearly drawn, and as the book goes on Kushner slowly reveals the deeply symbiotic relationship between the two classes. Richard St. Vier is the embodiment of this: a poor man living a poor man’s life who plays a vital role in the nobles’ politicking. Richard’s role manifests again in his relationship with his lover Alec, a clearly high bred man playing pauper who roams around Riverside starting fights Richard must finish for him. Sexuality is dealt with in a simple and wonderfully frank way; it’s refreshing to read a book where non-hetero relationships are written about as easily and with as much normalcy as straight ones. Again, there’s a classed element to this: the sexual liaisons up on the Hill are just another form of secretive political alliance, whereas everyone in Riverside knows everyone else’s business and no one particularly cares much.
The writing itself flows like wine. Kushner has a smooth, rarefied voice. She is a master of imagery, knowing exactly which details to include to make a picture crystal clear. All of her writing is seamless, and it all works even when, by rights, it shouldn’t. A case in point is Kushner’s tendency to head-hop, jumping from one POV character to another with no warning within the same scene. Usually this irks the living shit out of me. Usually I find it jarring and it rips me out of the narrative. For some reason (and I don’t know why the particular alchemy of her writing makes this work) it was no problem at all for me in Swordspoint. There’s a kind of force to Kushner’s writing, and a kind of tricky truth, that keeps the book from being the overwritten confusing mess it could have been in another writer’s hands. My hands, for instance, could not have produced something in this style that was remotely coherent or pleasant to read.
Swordspoint is extremely good, but it’s not perfect. While the book passes the Bechdel test it’s still very much a masculine book. The honor at play is masculine honor—even when manipulated by the beautiful and calculating Duchess Tremontaine it’s masculine honor at stake. We see hints of feminine agency in Riverside, but the book doesn’t dwell on them. This is a masculine book, and the queer elements at play here are masculine queer experiences. We see many men pursuing and loving and getting rebuffed by other men, and presumably that sexual openness extends to lesbian relationships, too, but we see exactly none of that in this book. This may be a failing of the scope of the narrative more than anything else; in my own writing, Ariah has the same exact weak spots.
The prodigious plot of the book could have been tighter. Specifically, the thread of Michael Godwin feels very much unresolved by the end of the novel. His prominence in the story and the ambiguous place he is left when we last encounter him makes him feel like a more important character than he turns out to be. It feels, a bit, like Kushner loved the character and wanted him in the book, but really his story only crosses the main narrative arc in one or two places. He’s not actually vital to the narrative. It may be that he plays a bigger part in the subsequent books in the series, I don’t know, but in this book his subplot is strangely disconnected and unresolved.
All that said, I truly enjoyed Swordspoint. I struggled, actually, to find something to read after finishing The Ghost Map. I wanted to read a very good and immersive piece of fiction that I hadn’t read before. I tried a couple of things that didn’t click and put them down. I tried to rage-read Ender’s Game* but that fizzled out because I wanted to be entertained instead of angry. I was just coming off a trip that stirred up feelings and thoughts about my gender and sexuality, and it came to me that maybe something enthusiastically queer would do the trick. I’ve had Swordspoint in my reading queue for awhile, and it turned out to be exactly the right thing to read just now. I would suggest reading this in hardcopy, though—the kindle version I read was sorely lacking in decent ebook design. It was very much a slapdash conversion which did this fine book no justice.
*That is a whole post of it’s own that I’ve been drafting in my head for a while. Stay tuned.