Hayley's Reviews > Swordspoint

Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
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's review
Mar 11, 2012

it was amazing
Read from March 11 to 21, 2012 — I own a copy

This book's subject matter might suggest frilly melodrama (and yes, that's its surface), but it's complex -- readers have to pay very close attention, and those who do will be rewarded with much to think about, if not certain answers.

"Swordspoint" is driven by highly-amplified social nuance. The dialogue often has two or more meanings, and seemingly offhanded words or sentences create ripples that later become waves. I'm telling you this now because I think having this expectation will help you enjoy it more.

It's set in a society ruled by a council of nobles. Nobles can hire swordsmen to duel to the death for their honor. If you're challenged and you have no swordsman to fight for you, well, run. The swordsmen (esp. protagonist Richard St Vier) have their own honor system, not revealing who hired them and, if they take this to extremes, not even allowing themselves to be contracted on paper. It's a matter of discretion, trust and carrying out the charges they accept (yes, good swordsmen are choosers) like machines.

The book revolves around an imperfectly segregated society: Nobles keep law and order in the rich part of the city while, downhill in a place called Riverside, swordsmen live in a poor and common 'theives-honor' community. The nobles' enforcers generally stay out of Riverside, and Riversiders' forays into the noble world are typically for servitude -- swordsman work included.

But people breach the barriers all over the place -- sometimes obviously, sometimes in obscure ways that are only revealed later or with reader attention. In essence though, these infiltrations and mixings drive the plot.

The honorable swordsman St Vier is shacking up with a loose cannon named Alec who seems to be a discarded scholar, with vestiges of noble mien. Where did St Vier's young lover come from? What's he doing in Riverside where he'd be eaten alive without the protection of St Vier and his reputation? ...It's very interesting. I'm not telling.

A crucial component of the book is the politics of nobles, in all their ig-noble glory. One powerful council member is plotting to use a swordsman to murder the head of the council. In order to secure the superb swordsmanship of St Vier, he starts trying to manipulate the swordsman, if indirectly, in very personal ways that blatantly cross the noble/Riverside boundaries. This noble's actions, and the acts of another he manipulates, lead St Vier to kill one noble for his own reasons. This breach sparks public outrage and puts a price on St Vier's head. At his trial, the secret relationships between noble and Riverside society come to light, resolving much of the book's confusing nuance, but adding even more to ponder.

The key point is that it's very hard to place where power lies -- readers might feel at one moment that nobles control everything, while feeling one page later that swordsmen could rule the world. And within noble society, individuals continually trick each other.

Fittingly I have not mentioned the one character who probably has most of the book's raw power. You'll know by the time you're done reading. Well, maybe.

If you find my review VERY vague, it's because this book can be read many ways. The question is who has power. One answer is that there are many different kinds. And a resulting question is: Power to do what?

^ That's an example of what "Swordspoint" will do to your brain. It'll make you run in circles...but you'll like it. I promise.


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