Swordspoint is an unforgettable book. It has everything I look for in a well-written novel -- a clear, individual writing style, memorable characters, and levels of meaning lurking just beneath a seemingly simple storyline. It is merciless and witty and disturbing, and an absolute joy to read.
The novel is set in an imaginary city which Kushner herself has described as "not-quite-equal parts of Elizabethan London, 18th century Paris, a dash of Regency of both, and even a little New York...." The city is ruled by a council of nobles. It is divided into two sections: Riverside, where the pickpockets and prostitutes live and where the Watch never goes, and the more prosperous part on the other side of the river, which includes the Hill where the wealthy nobles live.
The main characters are two young men. Alec is a cowardly, sharp-tongued stranger who mysteriously arrives in Riverside before the book opens. He clearly does not belong there. His accent is wrong, he wears a scholar's robe, and he has the height and bone structure of someone from the other side of the river. He swaggers around insulting people and apparently trying to get himself killed.
Richard is a citizen of Riverside, a brilliant, ruthless swordsman who makes his living as a mercenary. He is mild-mannered most of the time, but can be horrifically violent when crossed. His pleasant demeanor seems to stem more from detachment or self-protection than from a desire to please.
Neither man is a hero, or even very nice. They are proud and cruel and self-involved. But Kushner manages to make them fascinating and even, sometimes, engaging. The novel focuses primarily on them and their attempt to extricate themselves from a maze of political and romantic intrigue.
The problem is that some nobles across the river, in the rich part of the City, think Richard, and only Richard, can help them achieve their hearts' desire. Several try to hire Richard as their swordsman for reasons that aren't at first clear. Michael, who is the lover of both Olivia and Olivia's husband, believes that the Duchess of Tremontaine will take him as her lover if he can learn to use a sword. Lord Horn thinks Michael is interested in him and is being coy. Lord Ferris, the Duchess's lover, wants to be Dragon Chancellor and plots how he can use Michael and Lord Horn to this end, while the Duchess serenely uses everyone to gain power and influence for herself. And everyone tries to use Richard.
This book is very witty. Some of the funniest scenes take place on pleasure boats and in the theater, where these people meet and pursue their desires as discreetly as possible, usually managing to confuse and misunderstand each other.
Amusing and moving as parts of this story are, and despite its subtitle of melodrama, this is not a fluffy romance novel. It is deeply disturbing, raising questions about the nature of reality and the morality of violence, and portraying people who are so desperate they will take any risk. Violence pervades the story. This is not a kind world peopled with benevolent souls.
In one scene Richard makes love with the blood of a murdered man all over him. In another, the Duchess orders her servant to throw an injured man out of her house before he dies. And there is no promise of a happy ending. In fact, the last paragraphs of the book are quite chilling. Kushner does not soften the harshness of the setting or gloss over her characters' shortcomings. And yet it is a touching story, in some ways a beautiful story, and certainly a memorable one.
Note: Ellen Kushner is the host of Sound & Spirit, which can be heard on many public radio stations, and which won a Green Man Award for Excellence.