Ellen Kushner,
(Tor, 1989;
Bantam Spectra, 2003)

It's a melancholy trend, although perhaps inevitable, that something that should be as fresh and inventive as fantasy literature so easily becomes formulaic, to the degree that there are subcategories with many examples, all easily identifiable and few really standing out. Parked happily outside the throng is Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, the newest edition of which also contains three related short stories, "The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death," "Red-Cloak" and "The Death of the Duke."

Swordspoint is that most unusual fantasy, one without mages, wizards or sorcerers, no spectral visions, no medieval jousts or merry bands of thieves, no dire prophecies, goblins or dark spiritual presences. It is billed as "A Melodrama of Manners," and it is that, and more. The story is really a simple one, although there are several plot lines, all involving to one degree or another the swordsman Richard St. Vier, a true artiste of the blade with an arrogance to match, and his lover, the scholar Alec, he of the mysterious past, aristocratic bearing and uncertain sanity. The action takes place in the city (we are never given a name), in the slums of Riverside, the haunt of thieves, prostitutes, pickpockets and worse, and the high-rent district, the Hill, where the nobles live -- they are not really much better than those in Riverside, only more polished and, sometimes, more subtle.

This is a novel that promises intrigue and delivers in full measure: Lord Ferris, an intimate of the Duchess Tremontaine, has designs on the highest seat in the Council of Lords; the incumbent, Lord Halliday, is more than capable and quite vital, which has no bearing on Ferris's ambitions. It is unseemly for a noble to fight his own battles -- at least, those requiring physical combat -- so in matters of honor or politics the practice is to hire a swordsman to carry a challenge. Ferris, of course, wants to hire St. Vier, the greatest swordsman of the age. Other characters, whose stories ultimately combine with that of St. Vier and Alec include Lord Michael Godwin, apparently no more substantial than any other young noble of his set, but possibly with more to him than most, who is the target of revenge by the detestable Lord Horn (who is not used to having his advances refused, although the days when he was the reigning beauty in town are long past); Katherine Blount, a reformed thief, once of Riverside but now in Lord Ferris's service; and Diane, Duchess Tremontaine, who is beautiful, powerful and very, very dangerous.

The story itself is engaging enough to keep us reading -- there are political intrigue, amours and their attendant gossip, swordplay, kidnapping and murder, but the real stars of this novel are the characters and, indeed, the manners. Kushner herself cites Trollope as an influence; I would add Sheridan, Fielding and Austen, and, due to some remarkably accomplished blank verse that has an amazingly authentic ring, the Elizabethans. The characters are simply priceless, fully and subtly drawn -- even Alec's irrational behavior is perfectly believable. His relationship with St. Vier is perhaps the only one in the novel without an ulterior motive. They are not a particularly romantic couple, but there is no doubt that there is something deep and necessary to both of them there, and, as spiky and tempestuous as their affair might be, there is plainly a great deal of gentleness and compromise between them, as well as a kind of protective ferocity in the face of outside danger.

This is an elegant, magical, bitchy book, in which Kushner creates a richly detailed society out of equal parts of Restoration and Georgian England (with a good measure of the lustiness and bloodiness of the Elizabethans) and puts it under the merciless scrutiny of a Jane Austen. No one really escapes, yet we are committed to seeing Alec and Richard, at least, triumph.

The short stories are equally choice -- elliptical and rich, they have a slightly different tone than the novel, although they share its setting, and "The Death of the Duke" sets the stage for The Fall of the Kings, the sequel to Swordspoint.

The cover blurb, from George R.R. Martin, says "Swordspoint has an unforgettable opening ... and just gets better from there." It's absolutely true: Kushner writes like a dream. Not much more can be said, because any attempt to describe her style falls short. Take all the authors mentioned above, mix well, and you may be headed in the right direction.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 10 April 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.