Ellen Kushner


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

August 2, 2022

wordspoint was published in 1987 to huge acclaim. It was Ellen Kushner's first novel, and it looked like she had burst upon the scene and was on the fast-track to super-author stardom. The first six pages of the paperback are full of praise and acclaim from the biggest names in fantasy - George R.R. Martin, Peter S. Beagle, Neil Gaiman, Joan D. Vinge, Samuel R. Delaney, Gene Wolfe, Charles DeLint. Plus, the cover painting is by Thomas Canty - clearly big things were expected of Kushner. She published the World Fantasy Award winning Thomas the Rhymer a couple of year later, and that pretty much ended Kushner's output, apparently she gave up writing. Perhaps all she had in her were two novels. Not until 2002 did another novel come out, The Fall of Kings, and that one was co-authored by Delia Sherman. I found Swordspoint on a list of "forgotten classics", and even though I was enthusiastically reading fantasy and science fiction in those years, I don't recall hearing about it. So I checked it out of the library and gave it a try.

Swordspoint is set in an unnamed city in an unnamed kingdom. The city is partitioned into two parts: the Hill and Riverside. The Hill is where the wealthy elite dwell in luxury, filling their days with banquets, balls and parties. The aristocrats scheme and jockey for social status. At the top of the heap is the lovely widowed Duchess Tremontaine - powerful and beautiful, everyone is smitten by her. Lord Basil Halliday is the Crescent Chancellor of the Council of Lords - he is nearing the end of his term, but he aspires to an unprecedented third straight election to the Chancellorship. Basil is the only aristocrat who does any productive work, were learn that he is involved in attempts to solve a strike by the disgruntled weavers guild.

Young Lord Michael Halliday is featured early in the novel - he has liaisons with the beautiful people of either gender. But Michael has attracted the attentions of Lord Horn, and Horn cannot bear to be spurned. Michael decides he needs to take up fencing lessons, and so secretly begins classes with Vincent Applethorpe, the one armed fencing instructor.

The reason Michael needs to become proficient with the blade is that it is a point of honor in this ruthless society to fight duels, often to the death. Usually, the wealthy nobles hire swordsmen to fight for them, but sometimes a lord finds he must fight for himself.

The most accomplished swordsman is the unbeatable Richard St. Vier. For the right price, St. Vier will fight anyone, and so far, St. Vier cannot be beaten. St. Vier lives below the Hill in the squalid part of the city known as Riverside - a seething den of iniquity, full of pubs, brothels, cut-throats and gamblers. The rich send emissaries into Riverside, and offer St. Vier contracts to come up the Hill and engage their opponents in deadly duels. St. Vier willingly kills anyone if the price is right (though St. Vier loftily announces to one would-be employer that he won't kill a woman). St. Vier could be hired to stand ceremonial guard at weddings or give exhibitions, but such money-earning jobs are beneath him. St. Vier lives to fight, not to entertain nor to train.

St. Vier's lover is Alec, a tall youth of some education. Alec is cagey about his background, it seems clear that he has some university training - after all, he can read and write! Alec is careless with money, he likes to gamble, so seems clear that in his former life, Alec was an aristocrat. But now Alec roams the dangerous streets of Riverside - but the thugs know he is protected by the unbeatable St. Vier, and so the wise criminals leave Alec alone. The foolish criminals soon perish at the point of St. Vier's sword.

Back when this novel was published, in 1987, the portrayal of society where people thought nothing of taking lovers of either gender, much like the ancient Greeks, must have been a bold and innovative idea. But now many fantasy and SF novels have LGBTQ characters, and so the world of Swordspoint no longer seems so novel. Unfortunately, none of the characters are all that likeable. The protagonist of the book is St. Vier, but it is hard to cheer a man who willingly slays people for money, even if those that St. Vier kills are just scheming shallow aristocrats. In the end, the schemes of various aristocrats are revealed, and the reader learns who plotted the most successfully - who succeeds and who fails. I wasn't that invested in any of the vain nobles, so the outcome of all the plotting was not that stirring to me. Despite the many accolades, I don't think I have enough interest to seek out the sequel, The Fall of Kings.