Phoenixfalls's Reviews > Swordspoint

Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
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's review
Sep 29, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: cities, fantasy, female-author, high-fantasy, thriller, fantasy-of-manners, queer-protagonists
Read in August, 2009 — I own a copy

This was a hard book for me to read. It is undeniably brilliantly written, with characters that go down and down and a world that extends well belong the edge of the page. It is true, there is no magic as so many people insist on having in their fantasy worlds, but the world we get glimpses of is certainly not this one, so there is nowhere else to market it but the fantasy shelves. That depth and realism is extremely rare, and definitely to be commended: every single character whose viewpoint we see (and the viewpoint shifts frequently and with no formatting flourishes like line or chapter breaks) is damaged, driven by wants and needs that we get mere glimpses of. It is really an incredible feat for an author to accomplish: every time the viewpoint shifts the reader can see how the person whose actions we are following is acting in the way he or she thinks is right or justified. Knowing what we know of what else is going on, we can see how the person is short-sighted, or is playing into someone else's hands, or is simply an idiot; but every single person has his or her reasons and, given his or her state of knowledge and desired goals, is justified.

This, unfortunately, is what made the book so extremely hard to read. Because it takes place among an aristocratic class that does nothing but play politics with their own and other peoples' lives, the only viewpoint that was restful, the only person whose goals and needs were simple and straightforward, the only person who acted consistently with what we normally consider honor in a fantasy novel, was the swordsman Richard St. Vier. His was the most common viewpoint, as it is his story being told, but it was not often enough to prevent the novel from feeling like a tragedy to me, rather than the comedy I was led to believe it was. This was partly aided by the fact that something I read online about it gave away what I think was actually supposed to be a twist in the middle of the story, but I think even without that spoiler I would still have been left feeling unsettled by this novel. It clashes with my view of the world. I made my philosophical choice years ago, and I chose to believe that the world is ultimately a decent place, where people occasionally have misunderstandings, but these misunderstandings can be ironed out if we give honest communication and empathy a try. I do not want to live in a world like the one Kushner so lovingly detailed, where every man is an island to himself and the only choice is who you want to be used by and how. There is too much power in this novel and not enough love, and even the love that is in it is based in mutual conquest rather than in mutual surrender. It is a dark novel, an ugly one, but one that will undoubtedly stay with me for a long time.
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