Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Review of Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

Ellen Kushner’s delightful little 1987 fantasy snack Swordspoint is a difficult book to review.  Plot-centric, review content could be a simple rehash of the storyline.  To avoid this, I will suffice at saying the novel is a theatrically-moded story centering on swordsmen and the surrounding lords and ladies in an unnamed Renaissance-ish land.  Character appropriately (even uniquely) built and located in a larger web of intrigue and personal strife, Kushner does a fine job unveiling her story, suspense and subsequent revelation in keeping quality-wise.  From a plot point of view, the novel is wholly enjoyable and best to be discovered by the reader.

But where Swordspoint is deserving of further commentary starts with the subtitle: A Melodrama of Manners.  Pleasingly underscoring the story in a phrase, the comedic elements are indeed tucked inside a subtly tongue-in-cheek tale that purposefully and delicately treads the line between maudlin and mimetic.  Kushner finding a fitting pseudo-Victorian tone and holding tight to it from the beginning to end, the arrogant nobles and desperate rogues are given voices that uphold an outlay to be enjoyed for its humor and paid attention to for plotting.  In other words, the reader knows what they are reading is not intended as serious literature, but at the same time wants to keep reading for the wit inherent to the text and the obvious intelligence guiding the undercurrents of character and plot. 

One’s like or dislike of Swordspoint thus depends in some fashion on their patience for mannerisms, coquetry, double entendres, bruised egos, troubled psyches, indirect sniping, and posturing that come in tow with a (melo)drama of manners.  The humor is sly (for example, it’s a true delight to read the between-the-lines manner in which Kushner takes the piss out of maleness/bravery/nobility/etc. of standard epic fantasy), the scenes and dialogue are fastidiously crafted, and the plot is made to move according to the charming rote of convention but has a life of its own given the twist to gravitas Kushner applies.  All elements mixed to arrive at a spot-on point that hints at emotion but in a sublimely comedic tone, Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners is a very enjoyable novel.  Painting itself into a corner, however, it’s just may not be an important one…


  1. In a stunning coincidence, I just posted about this book on Tuesday as well. Judging from the love in the comments (and all the lists on the internet which initially prompted me to read the book many years ago), it's an important book for queer nerds. :)

    1. I didn't mention the queer elements in my review, mainly because I skipped over a plot summary. The relationship between the two male characters is certainly key to the story, but I just never looked deeper. Probably my loss.

    2. I think you're right that the "melodrama of manners" aspect is the most important element of the book as a whole. I think the queer aspect is what gets a lot of people to read it in the first place, though, and a reason we connect with it... And the fact that the queerness is one part and not the ONLY part is a big deal, too. :D