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Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

Swordspoint.jpgI pulled Swordspoint off my shelf because reading Georgette Heyer reminded me of it. Apparently I'm not the only one, because there in the first edition jacket copy is this quote from Peter S. Beagle: "Charming, exciting, and ironically provocative, rather as though Georgette Heyer had turned her hand to fantasy." I remember loving this novel when I first read it around the time it came out, but I didn't care for it as much this time. I'm not sure what the problem was the second time around, but it could be related to why Heyer almost immediately lost her appeal for me after the first novel I read. Maybe I don't actually like romance novels. Because Swordspoint is very much a romance, as in a story of love, and one of the things that was so striking about it back when it first came out (so to speak) was that it's a gay romance with more than a hint of S/M to it.

Of course another striking thing about Swordspoint that I found troublesome the second time through is that it's only a fantasy in that it takes place in a completely invented world. There's no magic, and it's not an Otherworld like Faerie. Neither is it a Ruritanian story, where the action takes place in an invented country that's still somehow part of our world. Swordspoint is set in an imaginary country that seems to be at the same level of technology as Europe in the Renaissance, so it does feel a little bit like traditional fantasy in that it's a world of swords, horses, ale houses, and aristocracy. While the story moves back and forth between the high class world of ducal places and the lowlife haunts of the impoverished, criminal Riverside district, where swordsman-for-hire Richard St Vier lives with his mysterious lover, Alec, it's mostly a novel of court intrigue, involving political machinations amongst the nobility, who are vying against each other for power and who hire St Vier to do their killing for them.

Part of my problem this time was that none of this felt very real to me. I know, it's a fantasy, what does reality have to do with it, right? Well, maybe nothing. But because it's all invented and because it's tied neither to history nor the alternate history and secret lore of Faerie, it felt like it was happening in a void in which none of the machinations really mattered. Again, maybe this is further evidence that I just don't care for romances, because the meat of the matter is the torrid, if playful, love of Richard and Alec. If you don't care about that (and I didn't this time), it's hard to care about the political intrigue that embroils them, although I will say that there are some ironic twists to the action invoking the law of unintended consequences that I did find very effective. But for me it lacked the weirdness and sense of alternate reality that I crave from fantasy and find in classics like Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter and Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist (which Kushner cites as an influence).

Maybe I'm also in a sour enough mood right now due to personal circumstances that "witty" novels just aren't doing it for me. I remember thinking this was, in fact, a very witty, effervescent novel the first time I read it, but all the wit and high spirits seemed very flat to me this time around. The novel I read before this, Barbara Pym's Excellent Women, was also a romance but a very sour one, and it was much more to my taste. So I'm strongly hedging my review on this one, because I suspect that I'm just not in the right mood for Swordspoint right now. Alas, this has been even more the case for the sequel, The Fall of the Kings, which I've been reading since I finished Swordspoint and which does involve magic and secret lore, so maybe my problem isn't just with the romance. Your mileage is very likely to vary from mine, so make sure to read around about this very influential novel before you make a decision about whether to read it yourself. But of course, that's what you should always do.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
kalimac
Mar. 30th, 2016 09:13 pm (UTC)
What Swordspoint reminded me of - rather eerily so, because in other respects they're not at all alike - is the Gormenghast books of Mervyn Peake.

In being:
a) fantasies without any magic
b) set in a nebulous time which is neither medieval nor modern, but an amalgam that's centered somewhere around the 17C.
randy_byers
Mar. 30th, 2016 10:15 pm (UTC)
Excellent comparison, although the third book is set in a more contemporary setting (Wikipedia says it's the future, but I don't remember that). The "amalgam" of past and present is one of my complaints about the The Fall of the Kings. The Gormenghast books are also c) a story of court intrigue around succession to a powerful aristocratic position, although the scheming is mostly amongst the servants and not the aristocrats, as I recall, so may reflect changes in the British political system in the 19th and 20th centuries.
kalimac
Mar. 31st, 2016 05:59 am (UTC)
In the third book, Titus leaves Gormenghast (thus it's not actually a Gormenghast book) and discovers the previously unknown outside world. Since the previous books had concentrated on showing Gormenghast as atavistic, decayed, and rusted into place (and, as Titus is the 77th Earl, at ordinary lifespans it'll have been there for well over a millennium), it should be no surprise to the reader when Titus discovers that that outside world has left the castle behind. It's all seen through Titus's eyes, and he doesn't know what he's looking at, so it's not entirely clear to the reader either, but it's evidently more technologically advanced than us (for which read the "us" of the 1950s, when it was written).
randy_byers
Mar. 31st, 2016 05:33 pm (UTC)
All I remember, technology-wise, is a car.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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