Siria's Reviews > Swordspoint

Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
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's review
Jun 05, 2007

did not like it
bookshelves: 20th-century, american-fiction, fantasy
Read in April, 2005

I picked this up for a couple of euro in one of my favourite second-hand bookshops because I'd heard it recommended numerous times on my flist. Cheesy fantasy novel cover aside (as a side note, exactly why must the covers of 99% of fantasy books be so fantastically appalling?), the descriptions I'd heard of it made it seem as if the book was tailor-made to appeal to me. A well-written, slashy, historical fantasy-of-manners - what's not to like?

Well, quite a lot, as it turns out. If the blurb by Neil Gaiman on the back cover is true - that this was the best fantasy novel of 1988 - then the fantasy novels published in 1988 weren't all that much to write home about, I think.

This is not to say that Swordspoint is badly written. It's not. It's quite competently written, in fact; but that's all. There were a couple of nicely written passages, but I never really got the impression that Kushner rose above the average throughout the book. It's also probably an indication more of how much fanfic I read than how prevalent it actually was, but I was also really irked by how often (it seemed) she talked about characters' eye colours, and how much she used epithets. I am perfectly aware that they can come in useful when dealing with two characters who are the same sex; but constantly referring to Richard as 'the swordsman' does tend to wear after a while.

However, my main issue with the book was the fact that it came across as Les Liaisons Dangereuses-by-numbers. There are attempts at witty, subtle, layered dialogue; treacherous, unscrupulous, amoral characters; hot sex. In fact, Kushner tries to include almost everything that makes Les Liaisons Dangereuses such a delicious pleasure to read. She lacks the finesse in combining everything which made Choderlos de Laclos' book work, though.

Richard and Alec are, for the most part, boringly flat. For a potentially lethal swordsman who has no qualms about killing, Richard is remarkably unmenacing, while for an unstable aristocrat, Alec is remarkably boring. The plot is very see through, and Kushner seems to have a thing for twisting the characters to fit the plot, rather than letting the character's development affect the story. For instance, I am really, really unable to see any reason why Alec and Richard are together and stay together other than for the necessities of the plot. The rapier-sharp dialogue which I'm sure Kushner was aiming for was also a much blunter sword than the author would wish, I think. A lot of the time, it had the laborious feel of someone who sat around a lot coming up with witty epigrams to come up with at a moment's notice - much more Mr Collins than Elizabeth Bennet, I'm afraid.

I'm also pretty certain that, were the Marquise de Merteuil and the Duchess Tremontaine ever to meet, the Marquise would be able to rip the Duchess to shreds without exerting herself one little bit.

I'm not not recommending this book - a lot of people whose reading tastes normally gel with mine really seem to love it - but it left me cold.
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03/03/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-4)

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message 4: by Punk (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:19AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Punk Oh god, I thought a friend of mine and I were the only people who didn't care for this book. It's kind of a relief to know we're not the only ones. It's hard when fandom wants you to love something and you don't!

message 3: by Siria (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:19AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Siria I know! I bought it expecting to love it, given the rhapsodies I'd heard about it in fandom, but just--no. It felt as if Kushner were standing over my shoulder while I was reading and every two pages or so saying "Ha! Now, wasn't that witty/dashing/full of sexual tension? Wasn't it?" To which I would have to say "No." :|

Kathryn I'm glad I'm not the only one who didn't like it either. I reviewed this on livejournal and I seem to be in the minority. I agree completely--why are Richard and Alec together? What is the attraction? Kushner made a half assed attempt to make Alec vulnerable, in a few scenes, but it didn't work, and I couldn't believe that I was supposed to like him.

Yoshiyuki Tomoe My only issue is everyone who compares it to Dangerous Liaisons is sort of asking not to like it. I can concede where some of the wit is lost and it reads like the author is superbly smug. But really its eats me all the comparisons to that other novel. I have never read it and now intend to as I love historical fiction.

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