Swordspoint Review (2015 SFF Reading Challenge 5/10)

Swordspoint
Swordspoint

(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

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