Swordspoint Review (2015 SFF Reading Challenge 5/10)


(The World of Riverside #1)
By: Ellen Kushner
First published in 1987
Book 5/10 of my 2015 SFF Reading Challenge

This classic melodrama of manners, filled with remarkable plot twists and unexpected humor, takes fantasy to an unprecedented level of elegant writing and scintillating wit.

On the treacherous streets of Riverside, a man lives and dies by the sword. Even the nobles on the Hill turn to duels to settle their disputes. Within this elite, dangerous world, Richard St Vier is the undisputed master, as skilled as he is ruthless – until a death by the sword is met with outrage instead of awe.

Swordspoint was exactly my cup of tea: interesting, complex characters, with a lot of plotting nobles! It had political intrigue and swordfights, as well as a focus on character relationships.

Swordspoint is a fantasy of manners book, or as it says in the beginning, a melodrama of manners. It’s focused on the character relationships, the customs, and the classes of the people inside this one unnamed city. There’s the upper city, called the Hill, where the nobles live, and the other side, Riverside, where the pickpockets, swordsmen, and people who don’t fit in with the society live.

The main character, Richard St. Vier,  is a swordsman. In this city the nobles solve their quarrels with hired swordsmen: the insulted party will hire a swordsman to challenge the other noble, who in turn will have his own swordsman take up the challenge in his stead. Richard is the best swordsman in Riverside, and the plot focuses on him, his boyfriend, Alec, and a group of nobles that plot against each other in the upper city.

I really liked the characters in this book, although they might not be that likable in general terms. They are very complex characters and they have their own morals. They are not clear-cut heroes and villains; instead all of them are flawed in their own way.

My favourite character in the book was Richard’s boyfriend Alec, who is a very mysterious character. He’s not from Riverside originally, and no one really knows where he comes from. He dresses like a scholar from the University, but he talks like someone who is from an upper class. He has dark bouts where he turns suicidal, or at least very self-loathing, and he likes to stir up trouble. He goes around insulting people, even though he doesn’t know how to defend himself. Instead he incites quarrells and watches Richard fight them on his behalf, and he sort of gets off on that. All the time in the book I was wondering what his deal is.

Another thing that I liked about this book is that no one commented on Richard’s and Alec’s relationship. While there are gay characters in other fantasy books, they are often ostracized, and the same prejudices that are in our world are portrayed in the fantasy world. It was refreshing to see something different in this book, and I would like to read more fantasy like this. There are women from Richard’s past mentioned in the book as well, and the nobles in the upper city seem to also have their love affairs with both sexes. I’ve heard later that Kushner has said that all her characters in this world are bisexual. Like I said, it was very refreshing.

The majority of the book consists of the nobles’ schemes, which I found quite interesting to follow, even though they might not have been that complex. There was especially this one noble who was not the sharpest pencil in the box, and he sort of fumbled along with his plans. I knew nothing good could come out of them, but it was enjoyable to follow.

My reading experience was only bothered by some point of view changes. In one paragraph one character might be thinking something, and then the very next paragraph might be from another character’s point of view. At times I was confused since I’d missed that the POV character had changed in between. I learned to watch out for it, even though it mixed me up sometimes later on in the book as well. So the narrator is omniscient and tells all of the characters’ thoughts at one go, which was sometimes hard for me to follow.

I would highly recommend this book if you are interested in plotting nobles and characters with grey morals, as well as fantasy taking place in quite a small sphere, since the book takes place all in one city, with no travelling or quests or other epic fantasy staples. I really recommend Swordspoint and I’ll be reading more of Ellen Kushner’s work.

4.5 out of 5 stars


The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms Review (2015 SFF Reading Challenge 4/10)

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

(Inheritance #1)
By: N.K. Jemisin
First published in 2010
Book 4/10 of my 2015 SFF Reading Challenge

Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother’s death and her family’s bloody history.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is an entertaining read that caught my interest from page one.

Yeine Darr’s mother belonged to the Arameri, the ruling family, but left them for love. After her mother’s death, Yeine is summoned to the palace by her grandfather. There she is unexpectedly made one of the possible heirs to the throne alongside her two cousins, who have lived in the court their entire life. To top it all off, the ruling family has control over four enslaved gods, who dwell in the palace, and Yeine quickly gets caught up in their plots, as well.

N.K. Jemisin has the fantastic idea of enslaved gods as weapons of mass destruction. The Arameri family rules the world, because they literally have the power of gods at their beck and call. They backed the right god during the war of the gods, and in return he gave the losing gods to the Arameri. So they can send, for example, the Nightlord Nahadoth, god of the night and chaos, to wipe their enemies out. Talk about unfair and overpowered!

What I really enjoyed about the book were the characters. Alongside Yeine, the gods were my favourites. I found their mythology so interesting! Another draw for me was the fact that this took place in a court setting. I have a weakness for court intrigue fantasy. More of that my way, please!

Now, there is a romance storyline in this book. Usually I don’t like a romance storyline to feature heavily in a book, but in this one it didn’t bother me. I’ve heard that it divides readers, though – some like the romance, some find it offputting. I liked following the characters too much to mind it. Actually, I found it quite interesting.

I was surprised to learn that this was Jemisin’s debut novel. I didn’t like her later series, the Dreamblood, nearly as much as this book. The first Dreamblood book was good, but I was much more quickly caught up in the story and the characters of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It is part of a series, but functions full well as a standalone book, which is refreshing. I will continue with the series later, since I had so much fun.

4.5 out of 5 stars

The Goblin Emperor Review (2015 SFF Reading Challenge 3/10)

The Goblin Emperor
The Goblin Emperor

By: Katherine Addison
First published in 2014
Book 3/10 of my 2015 SFF Reading Challenge

The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an accident, he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.

Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.

The Goblin Emperor is a court-intrigue fantasy book with a very appealing main character.

Half-goblin Maia has lived all his life sequestered in a distant mansion, when the death of his elven father and all the other heirs to the throne in an airship accident makes him the Emperor. He has no knowledge of court politics, and the only person he knows is the volatile cousin whose bitter mood swings he has had to live with in his exile.

Maia is a marvelously likable character, and to me he was the main selling point of the book. I loved him! He feels so alienated: he has been raised by an abusive man, he doesn’t know anyone in the court, and he is the only goblin there among the tall, pale elves, if you don’t count the servants. Maia is very easy to sympathize with, and he feels like a real person, his inner voice is so genuine. You can’t help but root for him as he tries to learn how to rule and to get used to the fact that he can’t be bossed around like when he was little. All this while feeling like he can’t trust anyone. Other characters that I enjoyed include Maia’s bodyguards, and his marvelously competent secretary, Csevet.

Katherine Addison has created a complete fantasy court with new titles, etiquette, politics, and customs. The huge amount of names and titles could be overwhelming, but I actually liked it, since Maia was quite overwhelmed by the court, too. I would like to just start from the beginning and read this again, since I know more of the customs and remember all the characters better now. There’s a glossary at the back, but when a person can be referred to as title + surname or first name + surname, it will get confusing at times. Especially when there might be a female title + surname, and a male title + surname from the same family, and you have to remember which was which.

I recommend this to people who like character-focused, slower fantasy books, and don’t mind being bombarded with a lot of fantasy names. While the court intrigue scheming might not be very intricate, the main point is the character’s journey, and I felt with Maia every step of the way.

5 out of 5 stars